UK Retail Workers Deserve a Safe Place to Earn a Living

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Fajita kit display in disarray, discount grocery store, Sussex, England. Photo by A.Howse
Fajita kit display in disarray, discount grocery store, Sussex, England. Photo by A.Howse

Companies opening their doors to sell goods to the public need to create a safe and positive place to work for all their employees.

Retail assistants often earn a minimum wage and often work unsociable hours and many have to travel at night or in the early hours of the morning. Shopkeepers and their support teams were brave and hardworking during uncertain times and kept the country going during the recent pandemic.

The conscientious retail key workers opened their supermarkets and boutique shutters and personally delivered supplies to householders staying inside throughout the covid lockdowns and beyond, when many millions of citizens stayed at home to avoid getting sick.

At HotEnough.com we know of one person (who wishes to remain anonymous) who resigned from their sales assistant position with a well-known local village store chain in Hampshire, after taking time off work, due to being physically assaulted by a shoplifter. The thief became aggressive when asked to leave the community supermarket after the ‘customer’ had repeatedly helped themselves to the shop’s shelves without any intention of paying.

An experience like this can leave the most confident employee understandably traumatised and unwilling to put themselves back into that work environment, without the proper support of their managers and also effective ongoing safety measures.

A manager at a discount grocery retailer in Sussex who doesn’t wish to be named told us at HotEnough.com that “The police don’t always attend when we contact them, as they are often too busy, as they (members of the police services) are overstretched.”

The same grocery store manager described how recently shoplifters tried to press charges against his staff member, after an angry scuffle incident occurred between an employee and a shoplifter. The store assistant had become frustrated at the high level of alcohol theft stock loss, which was an illegal activity that had been replicated by the gang over a few weeks.

The store assistant had tried to personally stop the group of regular thieves from clearing the shelves of luxury liquor, resulting in an angry and aggressive situation. During the scuffle the store assistant was physically hurt (but luckily not severely). Outrageously the store assistant was then falsely accused of physically assaulting the shoplifter. This incident occurred in an expensive and desirable area of Sussex which is usually extremely peaceful. This crime shows how shoplifting is a problem that is found right across the country.

“Theft offences increased by 9% to 1.8 million offences compared with the previous year.” This statistic “included a 32% increase in shoplifting offences.” Reported Pete Jones on behalf of the Office for National Statistics at the end of January this year. (1)

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) is the UK based shopworkers workers union with over 350,000 members. USDAW think the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) shoplifting figures are “alarming” and they are “deeply concerned”. (2)

A USDAW statement reads: “Our annual survey found that three-quarters of retail workers suffered abuse from customers, with far too many experiencing threats and violence. Theft from shops and armed robbery were triggers for a third of these incidents. Particularly concerning is that just over half of those who did the survey said they were not confident that reporting these issues will make any difference.” (2)

Police services to tackle shoplifting are under pressure financially

Police resources are more stretched than ever as their central government budgets are cut in real terms due to inflation and other economic factors in many areas. Many local councils in England (such as councils in Hampshire and Sussex) are increasing council tax to be able to afford to maintain essential services, including employing more police officers in certain areas.

However, as there are many experienced officers who are of retirement age and therefore simultaneously leaving the police service, so it is currently hugely challenging to lead police forces in the UK and achieve all of the set targets. Brave and talented men and women in the UK’s police force do an amazing job helping the public keep safe and gain access to specific crime support services whenever they are needed.

In an interview with The Guardian this January “Gavin Stephens, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said police were cutting crime but faced severe funding pressures and a £3.2bn cash shortfall.” Dodd explains that in 2010 austerity a reduction in 20,000 police officers and a change in the demands of policing in a digital age has meant enormous pressure on services despite in recent years an increase in recruitment into the force and a long overdue 7% pay rise. (3)

This fantastic work that the UK police force carry out consistently serving the public can be seen in the statistical reductions in ‘total crime’ in the UK this year down 17% compared with the same period in 2020. This is despite police officers often covering for other social and healthcare services which have diminished or disappeared because of local and government funding issues. (1)

It is worth considering that there will be many, possibly hundreds or thousands, of unreported crimes and shoplifting incidents that go unreported each year. Retail managers and members of the public that become the victims of shoplifting criminals sometimes do not wish, for a variety of reasons (including believing that the police will not be able or willing to personally respond) to choose to involve the police services and pursue justice.

Nationally the police are striving to cover many urgent matters in order to protect the public in the communities up and down the country 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Police services are not always able to attend shoplifting incidents and sadly police supervisors are not always able to see retail stock loss (and protecting retail employees from abuse) as a priority in these difficult times.

Simultaneously the courts have been catching up after the challenges of lockdowns and covid regulations. Consequently, the underfunded prison system is under more pressure than ever. Convicting and jailing folk who commit property fraud, in whatever way, is not a priority government focus at this time. People who are intent on stealing clearly know that this is the situation and that they can more easily exploit the system for their own personal gain.

The Guardian highlights how Alex Chalk “set out measures for criminals facing jail sentences of under 12 months to receive suspended sentences and community service, with shoplifters one of the groups of offenders expected to benefit most from the change.”

New solutions are possible to deter shoplifting

CCTV technology has been employed by well-established retailers such as Marks and Spencer for decades and is a very effective tool in providing evidence to gain a shoplifting conviction in court. The Metropolitan Police have a very sophisticated system for tracking criminals using London’s city streets and businesses CCTV network.

The Met are also using “facial recognition technology to target London’s most prolific offenders.” according to Sky News and the recent BBC documentaries on the brilliant work of the Metropolitan Police also demonstrate how clever officers utilise the latest technology in order to catch and prosecute criminals. (4) (5)

More resources will enable forces to tackle more crime in regional town centres and out of town malls. Many councils have increased council tax to the maximum this year and in some areas like Hampshire this allows them to employ another 50 police officers this season (although it was not clear in this figure how many in the force had left or retired this year.)

Shoplifting union USDAW supports a House of Commons petition that “seeks to protect retail workers from violence, threats and abuse by extending the Scottish protection of workers law to the rest of the UK.”  (2)

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) outlines how during this election year in England that Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper committed the next Labour Government to: “13,000 more neighbourhood police with guaranteed patrols in town centres; Respect Orders to ban repeat offenders from town centres; a standalone offence for assaulting a worker serving the public and (we) will end the £200 threshold for investigating and prosecuting shop theft.” (2)

Whether Labour’s strategy can be delivered depends on who wins the election and what central government finances are actually available and allocated in practice. If Labour succeeds in becoming elected (or another alternative to the current Conservative party are elected) they may seek to reintroduce a law to give retail workers more protection from criminals.

A private members’ bill that was proposed by Alex Norris representing Labour for Nottingham North in 2020 which aimed to “make certain offences, including malicious wounding, grievous or actual bodily harm and common assault, aggravated when perpetrated against a retail worker in the course of their employment; to make provision about the sentencing of persons convicted of such aggravated offences; and for connected purposes.”

The private members bill designed to increase protection through increased penalties for abusing retail workers did not progress to a second reading in the House of Commons and was effectively ‘dropped’ by the Conservative UK government. No alternative legislative solution, apart from working closely with corporations to find ways of reducing shoplifting and retail crime, has been suggested by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his team at present.

We hope that the conservative’s policy of encouraging retail collaboration whilst also trying to maintain police services on a budget will be enough to significantly improve the working environment of millions of shop workers.

(1) ‘Crime in England and Wales: year ending September 2023’ Office for National Statistics, 25 January 2024 ‘Crime in England and Wales: year ending September 2023’ Office for National Statistics

(2) ‘Alarming 25% increase in shoplifting across England and Wales – USDAW calls for retail crime to be taken seriously’ Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) shopworkers trade union, 19 October 2023 ‘Alarming 25% increase in shoplifting across England and Wales – USDAW calls for retail crime to be taken seriously’

(3) ‘Shoplifting rate in England and Wales hits highest level in more than 20 years.’ Jack Simpson, The Guardian, 25 Jan 2024 (3) ‘Shoplifting rate in England and Wales hits highest level in more than 20 years.’ Jack Simpson, The Guardian

(4) ‘Shoplifting up 25% in the past year’ Henry Vaughan, Sky News, 19 October 2023 (4) ‘Shoplifting up 25% in the past year’ Henry Vaughan, Sky News

(5) The Met, BBC iplayer (series 4) Documentary, 21 March 2024 The Met, BBC iplayer (series 4) Documentary

(6) ‘Shoplifting rate in England and Wales hits highest level in more than 20 years.’ Jack Simpson, The Guardian, 25 Jan 2024 ‘Shoplifting rate in England and Wales hits highest level in more than 20 years.’ Jack Simpson, The Guardian

(7) ‘Shoplifting up 25% in the past year’ Henry Vaughan, Sky News, 19 October 2023 (7) ‘Shoplifting up 25% in the past year’ Henry Vaughan, Sky News