Co-op Boss Warns of Plight of Store Workers Amid Worsening Crime Epidemic

  • Retailer challenges Government inertia on first anniversary of closure of call for evidence
  • Store crime rockets 140% year on year
  • Abuse on the rise despite key worker classification

Shop workers have been spat at and threatened with being ‘given coronavirus’ as violence spills over in supermarket aisles and today, retail giant, Co-op, is warning of a store crime epidemic unless the Government urgently introduces new legislation to provide staff with greater protection.

The convenience retailer has seen store crime increase by more than 140% this year* despite communities recognising the critical role played by key workers in society.

Numbers of violent incidents have also hit record levels with 1,350 attacks having been reported by mid-June.

Recent examples of Coronavirus-related attacks up and down the country include:

Adeel Zafar, Co-op store manager in Halesowen: “A customer went ballistic at me when I asked him to respect social distancing measures – he started shouting verbal abuse, said he hoped I caught Coronavirus and that he would ‘sort me out’. It was a terrifying experience for me and the team to witness at an already difficult time.”

Claire Saunders, Co-op store manager in Romford: “I have faced physical and verbal abuse and have been physically assaulted. Recently a shop lifter threatened to spit in my face and give me Coronavirus. This is not part of our job and it is just not acceptable.”

David Brook, Co-op store manager in Shipley: “I have worked in retail for 16 years and have experienced and been the victim of many instances of both verbal and physical abuse while going about my job. I have seen many of my colleagues shouted at, sworn at, and even had glass bottles thrown at them over something as small as the refusal of an age-related sale. This is not part of our job. We should not have to put up with such abuse.”

Concerns for the physical and mental well-being of store staff continues to grow in the face of the Government’s failure to act, exactly one year after its call for evidence** on violence against shop staff closed on 28th June 2019.

As part of its Safer Colleagues, Safer Communities campaign, Co-op is building awareness and support for MP Alex Norris’ Assault on Shop Workers Bill which has seen its second reading in Parliament postponed. It states that because shop workers have responsibilities to uphold the law on age restricted products, they should be afforded greater protection in carrying out those public duties.

Hundreds of Co-op colleagues from around the UK have filmed short videos detailing their harrowing experiences and will be sharing these on social media, asking for MPs to show their support.

Co-op Food CEO, Jo Whitfield, said: “Last year, more than 600 of my colleagues bravely took the time to share their own experiences of abuse, violence and intimidation with the Home Office as part of their call for evidence. Yet here we are, a year on since the consultation closed and there has still been no response.  My colleagues need to have their contributions acknowledged in order to know that the Government takes retail crime seriously. This issue is not going away, it’s just getting worse thanks to the onset of Coronavirus.”

The role played by shop workers in serving their communities, particularly doing the last twelve weeks, is nothing short of amazing and they have rightly been deemed as key workers who are playing an essential role in keeping the nation fed. Yet despite this recognition, they are continually disrespected and have to contend with unprecedented levels of violence and abuse on a daily basis. This is not a Co-op problem, it’s a societal one that all retailers are concerned about. So today, I’m calling upon MPs to support their constituents in backing Alex Norris’ bill and I will also be asking my peers at other retailers to do the same. Enough is enough – store workers need to know that the Government is serious about tackling this issue and as an industry we must be united in protecting our workers.”   

Paddy Lillis – Usdaw General Secretary, added: “At a time when we should all be working together to get through this crisis, it is a disgrace that people working to keep food on the shelves for their local communities are being abused and assaulted. Urgent action is required. Our message is clear, abuse is not part of the job.

“We want the Government to legislate for stiffer penalties for those who assault workers; a simple stand-alone offence that is widely recognised and understood by the public, police, CPS, the judiciary and most importantly criminals. Retail staff have a crucial role in our communities and that role must be valued and respected, they deserve the protection of the law.

“Co-op stores are the cornerstone of our communities, but they can only operate with staff, who clearly do not have the option to work from home. We continue to work with the Co-op to improve health and safety for staff and we also call on customers to stay calm and respect shopworkers.”

Alex Norris MP, said: “A year is far too long to wait for the Government to respond on such an important issue, which the rise in violence during this outbreak has shown. Every day that they’re slow to act is a day when staff are left unprotected. Quicker action could have made a difference for hundreds over the last few months.

“I was pleased that last week the Home Secretary appeared to take the rise in abuse seriously and committed to looking into when the response to the Government’s call for evidence will be. I’ve followed this up with her, and will continue to push the Government until they provide our hard-working front line workers with the legal protection that they need and deserve.”

In its 2020 Crime Report***, the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) found that a quarter of violent incidents resulted in injury, with a weapon used in almost 20% of occurences. A knife was the most common used weapon (43%) with axes, hammers and syringes also used to attack or threaten shop workers.

In 2019, Co-op funded research**** into retail crime, with the hard-hitting findings reporting that shop workers were showing signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Co-op has committed a further £70M over the next three years in innovative technology to keep colleagues safer, including SmartWater Fog Cannons, the latest remote monitored iCCTV, body cameras and communication headsets for all frontline colleagues.

*Year to end of May 2020

**Government call for evidence closed on 28 June 2019

***ACS 2020 Crime Report:

****Report: “It’s not part of the job: violence and abuse towards shop workers” Dr. Emmeline Taylor, Director of Research, Department of Sociology at City, University of London

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