Co-op reveals rise in verbal abuse and assaults against staff during pandemic

A campaign for a new law to protect shop workers from attacks is being stepped up after a leading company revealed high levels of abuse against its staff during the coronavirus crisis.

The Co-op said its research suggests one in five customers has admitted being aggressive or abusive towards a shop worker over the past eight months, even though most people feel retail staff have provided an essential service during the Covid pandemic.

The Co-op said one in four of its frontline shop workers has been on the receiving end of violence, abuse and anti-social behaviour, with a 36% increase in incidents so far this year compared to the same period in 2019 – an average of around 730 a day.

Almost a quarter of aggressive customers said frustrations caused by panic-buying had caused them to lash out at store staff.

People living in Greater London are most likely to have been abusive or aggressive, followed by those in Scotland and Wales, the study of more than 2,000 adults suggests, while those in Yorkshire and the Humber are the least likely to have behaved aggressively.

Jo Whitfield, chief executive of Co-op Retail, said: “It’s encouraging that most people recognise the essential role that shop workers have played over recent months and that a third of people have relied on local shops more than ever throughout lockdown, but one in five people being aggressive or abusive is still one too many and store staff deserve better.

“Being on the receiving end of sustained, daily verbal abuse has a terrible impact on retail workers’ mental health, not to mention the catastrophic effects that physical violence will have.

“Everybody understands how challenging 2020 has been but our message remains clear – abuse and violence against shop workers should not be tolerated in today’s society and we will do everything in our power to ensure the Government puts greater legal protection in place so they can feel safer when they go into work.”

Labour MP Alex Norris, whose Assaults on Retail Workers Bill is due to get its second hearing in Parliament next year, said: “During the Covid-19 outbreak we have seen an increased prevalence of abuse and violence towards shop workers, but these unacceptable acts are something that retail employees have to contend with regularly, simply for doing their jobs.

“I believe if we ask employees to enforce the law, they should be better protected. Covid has stopped my important Bill to protect these workers, but the Government can act anyway and should do.”

Paddy Lillis, general-secretary of the shop workers’ union Usdaw, said its research shows three-quarters of retail staff feel abuse, threats and assaults have become worse during the pandemic.

He added: “The public, shop workers and retail employers are calling on Government to legislate for stiffer penalties for those who assault the shop workers.”

The Co-op has invested £70 million, and has pledged to invest the same amount over the next three years, in measures to keep workers safe, including remote-monitored CCTV and body-worn cameras.

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