‘It needs to stop’: Violence against shop workers doubles during pandemic


Violence and abuse against shop workers has doubled during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a union representing retail staff.

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) says retail workers have been assaulted, threatened or abused at least once a week on average since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, compared to once a fortnight in 2019.

Peter Denys, a store manager at a branch of Co-op Food in central London, says the situation is far worse than the statistics show.

He told Sky News: “It happens on a daily basis – some days you can have three or four incidents.

“People threaten us with bottles, knives, syringes and with COVID coming on, spitting. So they’re just using whatever tools they’ve got.”

In many cases, the violence stems from customers being asked to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“Sometimes they ignore you, sometimes it can be a flashpoint,” he said, pointing to the one-way system that weaves through the narrow aisles.

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In the week after face masks were made mandatory in shops, the Co-op reported 990 incidents of anti-social behaviour and verbal abuse in its stores.

The supermarket chain is one of a number of retailers where body cameras are now part of the uniform for staff.

Footage is recorded by a remote security unit so it can be used as evidence in any prosecution.

“It’s defused a lot of situations,” Mr Denys said. “If you tell them ‘you’re being filmed’, they just leave the store.”

Usdaw is calling on the government to provide more protection for shop workers with new legislation and tougher sentencing.

“It’s unacceptable for any walk of life and it needs to stop,” Usdaw General Secretary Paddy Lillis told Sky News.

“There has to be something tangible there that the criminal knows if he attacks a worker, if he assaults and abuses a worker, he will face the full rigours of the law.”

Claire Saunders, a supermarket manager in Romford, east London, is backing the campaign after a series of recent incidents caused her to question whether she should continue her career in the industry.

“We shouldn’t feel like that and that’s why I’m getting involved,” she told Sky News.

“We do make a massive impact and we shouldn’t let these people ruin that for us.”

In March, a shoplifter told her she would be spat on and given coronavirus if she tried to stop him. She was also pushed to the ground in the first week of lockdown as panic-buying took hold.

But she says it is the mental impact of these incidents that is often the most damaging.

“We go home at the end of the day and have that playing in our minds,” she said.

“We’ve had people say, ‘I’m going to come back and get you after work’. That’s just as bad as physical abuse. So the mental impact on colleagues is awful.”

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