Australia’s retail and fast food workers face ‘epidemic’ levels of abuse and harassment

Major retailers and food outlets have been accused of prioritising their bottom lines over staff safety.

Major retailers and food outlets have been accused of prioritising their bottom lines over staff safety. Photo: Getty/TND

Retail workers are being spat at, verbally abused and threatened with physical violence as part of their daily jobs, in what has been labelled an “epidemic”.

Across front-line workers in retail stores, supermarkets and fast food restaurants, 85 per cent of staff say they’ve been verbally abused by a customer – and 14 per cent say they’ve been victims of physical violence.

The Shop, Distributive, and Allied Employees Association (SDA) hosted talks this week with the National Retail Association and the Australian Retailers Association to “tackle the customer abuse epidemic in retail and fast food outlets across the country”.

“We’ve got an epidemic on our hands,” SDA national secretary Gerard Dwyer said.

“This abuse can severely impact their physical and psychological health and it cannot continue.”

Jane Michaels* works for a major retailer and has been working in the retail industry for more than 40 years.

Ms Michaels told The New Daily that while she loves what she does, retail workers “aren’t protected enough”.

“I’ve been abused verbally, had things thrown at me, had horrendous names called, been spat at … the list could go on,” Ms Michaels said.

Despite considering herself a strong person, such incidents leave her upset for days at a time.

Jane Michaels* said many customers entered shops just looking to start fights. Photo: Getty

“I don’t let it ruin my life or situations I’m in because at the end of the day we have so many nice customers that make up the difference for these sh—–ds. They’re just horrendous,” she said.

Ms Michaels does not consider abusers to be legitimate customers.

She said their outbursts can stem from illness, drug use, a thwarted shoplifting attempt – or something as simple as the item they want not being in stock.

She wants retail stores that are prone to abusive visitors provided with security guards to protect workers.

She also wants retail workers given more respect by the general public.

“I think that we’re underestimated. We don’t earn a high wage and we do work hard – people might think that we don’t, but we actually do,” she said.

Woolworths, McDonald’s accused of not protecting staff

Staff at a Melbourne Woolworths have been the subject of violent attacks; a deli worker had a chicken thrown at his head, and a customer threatened to stab a superviser.

Despite these outbursts, the supermarket removed permanent security guards and only reinstated them temporarily, even in the face of a petition.

Woolworths did not answer questions from The New Daily as to why the store was without permanent security, but in a statement said: “The safety and wellbeing of team members is our priority and our teams should not have to accept customer abuse in any circumstance.”

“We have a range of policies and processes in place to manage disruptive customers, but we recognise there is always more we can do,” Woolworths said.

McDonald’s has also been accused of not doing enough to protect its staff – many of which are teenagers – as violence and abuse continues to plague its drive-through operations.

In one case, a drive-through attendant was sprayed in the face with a fire extinguisher, Retail and Fast Food Workers Union secretary Josh Cullinan told The New Daily. 

McDonald’s drive-through workers have long borne the brunt of abuse. Photo: Getty

The fast food outlet does not have technology installed to capture the licence plates of offending vehicles, and Mr Cullinan said workers were instead expected to be responsible for quelling violent behaviour.

“No worker should ever experience these behaviours, and certainly not the lowest-paid workers in Australia in retail and fast food,” he said.

“This is the responsibility of the employers. These are by and large multibillion-dollar companies that can more than afford a security guard, or to install CCTV, or do whatever else they need to to provide a genuinely safe work environment. And to a tee, they continue to all refuse.”

The New Daily put a list of questions to McDonald’s asking why the company had failed to security measures including number-plate tracking technology.

A McDonald’s spokesperson said: “The vast majority of our customers are incredibly respectful, but unfortunately inappropriate customer behaviour is something all retailers deal with from time to time.”

The company did not respond to questions surrounding specific security measures.

*Name changed to protect source

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