Lisa Nandy MP: We must protect our key workers from public abuse
Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan.
Shop workers have rightly been recognised as key workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, going out to work every week in lockdown to keep shops open across Wigan.
But shockingly, while they kept our country moving and our families fed, shop workers were the target of rising violence by a minority of customers who objected to the Covid restrictions put in place to keep us and them safe.
A survey by USDAW, the shopworkers union, has found that abuse, threats, and assaults doubled at the height of the pandemic last year.
The research, based on responses from more than 2,700 retail workers, showed that almost nine in 10 had experienced some form of verbal abuse, two out of three had been threatened by a customer and one in 10 were physically assaulted.
There have been horrifying reports of shop workers being spat at, bitten, punched, grabbed, threatened with needles, sexually harassed and discriminated against all for just doing their job under extremely challenging circumstances.
In March, the Wigan Observer talked to retail workers at the Grand Arcade who confirmed that they faced abuse more regularly during lockdown. They said the increase was largely due to the behaviour of a minority of customers who resented the new hygiene and social distancing rules and took their frustrations out on staff.
While the vast majority of the public have done their best to comply with the new rules, the abuse from some customers has made retail workers feel undervalued and, in some circumstances, unsafe.
Wigan Council have responded by ensuring retail workers are able to report any abuse they receive to the community safety team and by sending council officials to stores to offer support.
But this is not a new phenomenon. Like many areas around the country, there have been a number of armed robberies in local stores in Standish, Aspull and other parts of Wigan in recent years.
A few years ago, alarmed by the rise in violent attacks on shop workers, I visited the Co-op on Woodhouse Lane to hear first-hand from staff how this had impacted upon them.
I was moved by their courage but angered by how little is being done by the Government to protect them.
Only six per cent of abusive incidents against shop workers result in prosecution. Little wonder a quarter of cases go unreported altogether.
Two years ago, the Home Office launched a call for evidence on violence and abuse towards shop staff. But after taking over a year to review the results and despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Government simply stated that it “does not consider that the case is yet made for a change in the law.”
I totally disagree. This is a crisis that demands action and it can be done.
In Scotland earlier this year the Scottish Labour Party spearheaded a campaign which resulted in The Protection of Workers Act. The new law will make it a specific offence to assault, abuse or threaten staff.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which is currently making its way through Parliament provides an opportunity to finally make real progress on this issue in England.
This Bill already includes welcome protection for emergency service workers who face assaults but, after campaigning on this issue for a decade, I strongly believe this should be extended to cover retail workers and other frontline workers.
Labour has tabled an amendment to the Bill aimed at creating a stand-alone offence and a 12-month prison sentence for abuse, threats and violence against shop workers.
A change in the law is backed by many of the country’s biggest retailers including the Co-op, Tesco, Asda and Sainsburys. Time and again, we hear warm words and grand gestures from Ministers but no action.
It is time for this Conservative government to stop letting offenders off the hook and work with Labour to protect our key workers.
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