Retail workers don’t deserve the abuse they cop

Poor treatment of retail and other service workers is unacceptable.

Poor treatment of retail and other service workers is unacceptable. Photo: TND/Getty

Imagine a job offer that read like this: “Do you want irregular hours, low pay, insecure work, limited career progression, and the chance to be yelled at, spat on, threatened, or assaulted by irate members of the public for things often beyond your control? Then apply within for a job in our retail or service division.”

Are you excited by this prospect? Itching at the opportunity to be exposed to some of the most awful elements of the human condition? Didn’t think so.

Spare a thought then for the millions of Australians who go to work every day risking an experience of just this kind of abhorrent behaviour and treatment.

According to survey results released by Finder last week, “one in three Australians have witnessed hostility towards service staff in the past six months” with 4 per cent of those surveyed having “been personally victimised by an abusive customer”.

The Finder report attributes the results at least in part to what they say is that “many Aussie households are cash-strapped and we’re starting to see some of that strain boil over into abuse”.

But it’s a troubling trend particularly when viewed in light of the findings of a pre-pandemic 2016 to 2017 survey conducted by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, which represents thousands of workers in the retail sector,

It revealed 85 per cent of respondents had been subjected to verbal abuse from a customer in the 12 months preceding the survey.

Australian Retailers Association CEO Paul Zahra also tells me that “assault and abuse of retail workers became a serious concern during the pandemic”, and although the industry expected that to subside once lockdowns ended, he says, “it simply hasn’t”.

And while Mr Zahra emphasises that “the majority of customers are respectful and do the right thing”, noting that “60 per cent of in-store thefts are conducted by the same 10 per cent of people, with co-ordinated retail criminals four times more likely to be aggressive than a typical customer”.

It is these words though which echoed like a midnight bell, “All retail workers … have a right to feel safe at work. No one deserves to be spat on, threatened with weapons, intimidated, or harassed for simply doing their job”.

Sentiment which is also reflected in a long-running campaign by the SDA to combat abuse levelled at retail workers.

What can be done about it?

Some Australian states have already enacted laws to provide better protection for retail workers by enacting specific criminal offences, such as in New South Wales and stronger penalties, like in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

The Western Australian government have also initiated similar reforms, which Mr Zahra says, “have been warmly welcomed by our retail community”.

Legislation introduced in NSW last year provides three new specific offences for abusive or violent conduct involving retail workers, with penalties of up to four, six and 11 years jail, respectively. The offences also extend to apply to action carried out against a retail worker when the worker is off duty if it was carried out in relation to actions of the worker while on duty.

And in South Australia the Criminal Law regulations were amended in 2022 to treat offences committed against retail workers with the same tough penalties that apply to offences against emergency and police support workers.

We have a right to expect better

State and territory workplace health and safety laws also operate to require employers to manage and reduce the risks to the safety of the workers that result from customer interactions, however appalling customer behaviour is something that may not be easily prevented by employers in many cases.

And legal reforms help arm enforcement authorities with tools to respond to bad behaviour and create a deterrent that might assist in the prevention of this type of conduct.

But the community at large has a right to expect people not to behave this way. Sometimes that might mean acknowledging when we are part of the problem.

Tacit acceptance of poor treatment of retail and other service workers, some of which most of us will have observed and probably walked past at some point, expecting someone else to do something about it, is setting the bar too low.

Whether behaviour is abusive may be a matter of degree, and the most egregious acts seem only to be engaged in by a small number of bad apples.

But retail and service workers – many of whom are young people in their first or second jobs – can’t be expected to put up with what often gets dumped on them simply because they happen to be the right person but in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

So, if someone gets your order wrong, has sold out of your size, can’t process a return on your item, or whatever else it is that you’ve got to complain about, relax and remember that they’re just a person trying to do a job.

Scott Riches is an employment lawyer and former union official. He is also director principal of Capacita

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