The Co-op has invested more than £70m in technology to keep shop workers safe

A Co-op funded report has called for government action to prevent crime against retail workers, claiming it has reached ‘epidemic’ proportions.

According to criminologist Dr Emmeline Taylor from City University, workers are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after being subjected to violence and verbal aggression.

The Home Office’s Commercial Victimisation Survey found that assaults and threats committed against the wholesale and retail sector increased almost threefold from 524 incidents per 1,000 premises in 2016, to 1,433 in 2017.

At the same time, severe under-reporting of retail crime means it is not a priority in police plans, while budgetary pressures mean there has been a rise in levels of violent crime. Under current legislation, thieves can steal items with a value of less than £200 with relative impunity, which heightens the incentive to steal.

In 25% of cases, violent or abusive incidents happen because a retail worker has challenged a thief. Some have been threatened with dirty needles by drug users; others have witnessed thieves clear whole shelves of products that they then go on to sell.

In her report, Dr Taylor makes seven recommendations to stop abuse against shop workers, including:

  • Reviewing the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, particularly the financial values that are set in the legislation and how this impacts people’s tendencies towards theft
  • Introducing new legislation carrying higher penalties for attacks where a shop worker is enforcing the law on age restricted sales such as cigarettes or alcohol
  • Change the onus on age-restricted sales so customers voluntarily offer proof rather than workers having to enforce it
  • Measure hate-motivated offences in shops and offer support to those targeted
  • Better mental health provision and drug treatment to address the root causes behind many crimes

Dr Taylor said: “Multiple data sources show that the frequency and severity of violence towards shop workers is increasing.

“Often ignored as ‘retail crime’ and therefore somehow victimless, let’s not forget that behind each and every statistic is a person who has directly experienced violence or verbal abuse while simply doing their job. The accounts provided in this study by victims highlight that more needs to be done to protect shop workers.”

“It is evident that government action is urgently needed to protect employees and send a clear message that violence and verbal abuse will not be tolerated in our shops.”

The strain of being targeted for abuse and violence means many shop workers feel they have to change their shift pattern, their place of work, or even stop work altogether.

In response to the report’s findings, Co-op has launched a Safer Colleagues, Safer Communities campaign, and is working to raise awareness of the issue of violence and abuse against shop workers.

Co-op Food CEO Jo Whitfield said: “Nothing is more important to me than protecting our colleagues at the Co-op. I’ve worked in retail businesses for more than 20 years and I’ve never seen such high levels of violence and abuse. And it’s having lasting effects on the lives of workers, both mentally and physically. It is not part of the job to be verbally abused, threatened or attacked.

“We’re determined to make sure it isn’t and in addition to industry-led initiatives, the sector needs government action to stem the tide of abuse against shop workers and address the underlying causes that are known to result in violence.

“We hope the report’s recommendations force the government, businesses, law enforcement and trade unions to act together to develop a strategy to protect all shop workers.”

In April this year, the government launched a call for evidence on violence and abuse against shop workers and this consultation concluded at the end of June. It is yet to make any follow-up recommendations.

The report calls for greater investment to tackle the use of heroin, crack cocaine and newer, synthetic highs as one of the motivations behind theft. It says: “Significant opportunities to assist drug users to transition to a drug-free life are being missed.”

It asks the government to work together with businesses and communities to develop a public health approach to tackle these root causes.

Meanwhile, the Co-op has invested more than £70 million in technology to keep colleagues safe and plans to match this over the next three years.

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