26 February, 2024
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Retail workers facing increased violence and abuse


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Frustrated customers are increasingly taking their anger out on shop workers with the approaching Christmas rush only likely to make things worse. 

Gabbi Colloff, an employee at a major supermarket, says pressures during the holiday period including low staffing levels as supermarkets pivot to self-service checkouts means shoppers are less likely to treat her with respect. 

She “received a mouthful” and had a gift card thrown at her while attempting to serve someone during her first Christmas at work in 2020. 

The person had become upset after not being able to buy more than five cards in one transaction. 

“The customers who are rude or abusive are the ones who stick with you,” Ms Colloff said.

“People look down at retail workers, they think we’re just kids working for a bit of pocket money. 

“For some people this is their primary source of income.”

Her experience lines up with a survey by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association that shows most staff in retail and fast food have been verbally abused in the workplace.

More than three out of four have been subjected to insults, yelling or similar verbal harassment by members of the public, the 4600 responses showed. 

Just over one in 10 were physically abused, with a quarter facing racial, ethnic or culturally-based harassment. 

Gerard Dwyer, the national secretary-treasurer of the union for retail, fast-food and warehouse workers, said cost of living pressures were feeding into increases in customer abuse. 

“There’s just that extra level of tension that the consumer takes into the store,” he said, noting some of the uplifts in incidents involving repeat offenders as well as frequency of abuse. 

Several respondents said they were physically or verbally abused after trying to make sure people had paid for or scanned all items in their baskets.

More than one-in-10 Australians, or about 2.4 million people, confess to having stolen from businesses in the past year as they reach financial breaking point, according to a survey conducted in October by comparison website Finder.

Sexual harassment was also rife, the union poll showed, with unwanted comments, people exposing themselves and physical assaults reported particularly among young female workers. 

“I get unwanted touching, mostly by older men,” one respondent said.

“They also say sexually inappropriate comments, one also asked me to go out with him. I said ‘no’ but he kept asking.”

Solutions such as more staffing, a rethink of store layouts and law reform are among those proposed by the union to better protect workers.

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

National Sexual Abuse and Redress Support Service 1800 211 028

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