Tough penalties for abusing, assaulting retail workers

'Pay cut' for workers despite national wage rise

Customers who abuse or assault retail workers will face tougher penalties in NSW.

As research reveals 85 per cent of retail workers have copped abuse at work, legislation will be introduced to NSW parliament on Wednesday to crack down on offenders.

New offences will carry more severe penalties than general assault provisions and send a strong message such behaviour is unacceptable.

Three new offences will be included in the Crimes Act, making it a crime to assault, throw a missile at, stalk, harass or intimidate a retail worker at work. Even if no physical harm is caused, the perpetrator could face a maximum penalty of four years’ jail.

Anyone assaulting a retail worker could face up to 11 years in jail.

McKell Institute research commissioned by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) found 85 per cent of retail workers have been abused or assaulted at work.

Earlier this year, industry and worker groups warned of an alarming spike across Australia in abuse of retail workers. First noted in the early days of the COVID pandemic, it had continued to rise since.

Gerard Dwyer, SDA national secretary, welcomed the legislation, telling The New Daily that retail staff deserve the same protection as other frontline workers like police and emergency workers.

“Shoppers should remember that they [retail workers] are providing an essential service – ensuring you get the essentials of life to put food on the table and provide for your children,” Mr Dwyer said.

“They should not be subject to abuse and worse. Check your behaviour before you check out,” he added

Australian Retailers Association CEO Paul Zahra said the “frightening escalation” in retail crime had now become a matter of life-or-death for workers simply trying to do their job. 

It is shocking that in recent months in different locations across the country, we’ve seen several retail workers stabbed – in addition to the broader issue of staff being harassed, intimidated, and physically assaulted,” Mr Zahra said.   

Mr Zahra previously told The New Daily that in his 40 years’ experience in the retail industry, he had never previously seen customers target staff as they did during the pandemic and in the years after.

“It’s not acceptable: Customer aggression, including assaults, has remained prevalent post-pandemic and it has prompted the need for government intervention,” he said.

“There’s just generally a big rise in the number of customers who choose to unleash their frustrations on retail staff, and we want to make sure that it is punishable by law.”

The ARA urged state and federal governments to act to protect workers, after which NSW Labor made it an election pledge.

On Wednesday, Premier Chris Minns said everyone should be treated with respect at work.

“This bill reflects our government’s commitment to support our workers and ensure their safety in the workplace,” he said.

“The South Australian government took the lead on this issue; now NSW is following suit and all other state governments should act expeditiously to address this scourge,” Mr Dwyer said.

The SDA said triggers for customers’ abuse of staff could be innocuous.

“Price of fuel is too high so it was my fault, got yelled at [by] the customer [who] called me names,” one worker told the union.

Another said: “The [customer] abused me [because] … his card was declined. He raged on me saying that I stole his money and that he is going to call the police, get me fired and try to kill me.”

Other workers told the union they were anxious about going back to work after being abused, especially with a lack of a physical barrier to protect them.

NSW Industrial Relations Minister Sophie Cotsis said on Wednesday abuse at work could leave shop workers with emotional scars, as well as those caused by injury.

“I’ve heard first hand from retail workers who have experienced terrible abuse which has affected their working life, this legislation signals the government’s support for our workers and their safety,” she said.

“We are committed to ensuring the justice system protects workers and that penalties are appropriate and meet community standards.”

-with AAP

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