Retail staff are being verbally abused and physically attacked. It’s time behaviour at the shops was called out, writes Michelle Collins.
Retail staff are being verbally abused and physically attacked. It’s time behaviour at the shops was called out, writes Michelle Collins.

Abuse, intimidation: What it’s really like working in retail


When did we get so angry?

Moreover, how come we have to be reminded - every time we step into a shop, supermarket, or pub - that it's not okay to scream, physically assault, spit or cough at the staff?

At the checkout at my local supermarket last week, I noticed signs requesting customers to "please treat our team with respect."

"We will not tolerate any verbal abuse and aggression or violent behaviour towards our team or other shoppers," it read.

The checkout operator said they had been put up recently as they had in previous years in the weeks leading up to December 25.

Do we really need to be told to keep a check on our behaviour?

Apparently we do.

There are similar signs posted in just about every shop, pub and cafe and for several years the SDA, the union representing retail workers, has run its "No One Deserves a Serve" campaign, working with employers to remind their customers not to attack workers.

And this isn't just fall out from the COVID-19-induced, toilet paper-shortage-in-the-supermarket imbroglio.

Retail workers say they often cop abuse during their shift.
Retail workers say they often cop abuse during their shift.

The Christmas shopping frenzy - including the Boxing Day sales - is traditionally a peak abuse period.

At the beginning of the month SDA surveyed 2300 retail workers. Almost nine out of every 10 staffers reported being subject to verbal abuse.

About every fourth worker reckoned they were abused every single week.

SDA Queensland secretary Chris Gazenbeek says this can severely impact the worker's physical and psychological health.

"It is intolerable. It must not continue. Everyone has the right to do their job in a safe

environment," he says.

One Queensland discount department store worker I spoke to this week had horrendous tales of bad customer behaviour.

She works as a "greeter" saying hello at the entry, checking bags at the exit and keeping an eye on the self-service check-outs.

So far this year this 50-plus mother has been punched in the head, followed to her car and verbally abused.

And why? Because apparently it is her fault the queues are too long, there aren't any trolleys in the trolley bay, the item the customer came in for isn't on the shelves, or they've tried to walk out items and not pay.

Abuse, she says is an everyday occurrence, and with more than four decades in the industry she says its gotten worse in the last three to four years.

"But this year has been the worst.

"I feel like I'm at a carnival or a sideshow and it's one of those games where they are throwing darts at balloons and everyday I wonder: Is this going to be the one that will connect? Am I going to get hit again? Will it be a knife this time?"

"I haven't had anyone spit at me yet; I'm surprised I haven't but I expect it will happen."

And then there are the customers - adults - who vomit and urinate in the aisles, and she's lost count of the number of times customers have dropped their trousers on the way out.

"You want to check something, check this, they say."

Abuse isn't just a yuletide occurrence. The Christmas/Boxing Day onslaught might be coming to an end but this worker reckons the back to school shopping rush is even worse.

Of course, abuse of retail workers is not just an Aussie affliction.

In the UK earlier this year, more than 102,000 people signed a petition calling on the government to make violence against retail workers a specific offence.

The petitioners decry the fact that, since the start of COVID-19, the average retail worker had been assaulted, threatened or abused once every six and a half days.

The government response was "no": citing the plethora of offence regulations supposed to cover assault in all its many degrees.

In Queensland, threatening someone can be an arrestable offence.

Assault is defined in Section 245 of the Criminal Code and includes actual forceful contact with another person or threatened forceful contact. There are also public nuisance offences - under Section 6 of the Summary Offences Act - that could be brought into play.

But this sort of abuse doesn't always get reported.

When our worker was "bashed" - by someone who already had charges against them, she says the police told her it would be too much paperwork to press more charges and her bosses just told her workplace equivalent of take a Bex and have a lie down.

So if you are out shopping, whether it's the Boxing Day sales, the back-to-school rush or just the weekly trip to the mall take Chris Gazenbeek's advice and check your behaviour before you get to the checkout.

And let's all hope the written word is still has some might over those who just want a fight.













Originally published as Abuse and intimidation: What it's really like working in retail

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