Lancashire shop workers speak out as abuse from customers in UK stores doubles in a month

Lancashire shop workers are speaking out as incidents of abuse from customers in British stores double in a month - with one in six being ill-treated on every shift.

Monday, 27th April 2020, 11:45 am
Almost a third of British retail workers in a survey of 4,928 say they have been threatened by customers refusing to comply with social distancing measures in store.

Almost a third of British retail workers in a survey of 4,928 say they have been threatened by a customer refusing to comply with social distancing measures in store.

Some 4% have been assaulted - amounting to more than 3,500 every day when averaged across all shop workers - while 2% have experienced verbal abuse, according to the study by retail union Usdaw.

A Lostock Hall security guard, who wishes to remain anonymous, has experienced abuse first-hand.

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Abuse of shop workers by customers in British stores has doubled in a month.

The 20-year-old, who began working in Preston and Bamber Bridge supermarkets two months before lock-down began, said: "I've seen a customer throwing punches. He had to be restrained and the police came.

"He was being irate with another customer, and as we were on our way, he threw a punch at a staff member. There were no arrests but police escorted him off site with a barring order.

"Shoppers are being irate with each other about social distancing measures. This incident was in a small store and people were trying their best to follow the guidelines."

But some people are ignoring the rules, he says, adding: "I asked a man to queue up outside to wait to go in but he swore and tried to push past me. I put my arm in the way and he tried to grab me. The manager gave him a barring order for life.

One in six shop workers say there are ill-treated by customers on every shift.

"I've also seen one of the guards I work with being racially abused. We have a cap of 50 shoppers at one time and people can't come in store in pairs, unless one of them is a child.

"A woman came with her son and daughter, one being old enough to stay outside, so we politely asked them to.

"She refused and they all went in and met up in the store. A security guard approached them and said one of you needs to wait outside because of the cap. She then racially abused him and they were all escorted outside.

"Some people don't understand the rules and say they can't be bothered with them. But most of them will then wait in a queue and realise why the measures are in place. I've had people come up to me and apologise for the way they've acted.

"I understand that everyone's going through a hard time. We've not had to deal with a mass pandemic in 100 years.

"But we're not being harsh. We're just doing our jobs. Even though you might be stressed, we have to enforce the rules.

"We're not robots. We do feel for people and we're sympathetic. It weighs on me personally when I have to refuse people. I don't want to do that."

Most customers, however, respect and follow the rules without causing any issues, he says, and some have even bought him chocolate and bottles of water to say thank you for his hard work.

"It warms my heart when people say thank you," he added.

There have been reporters of customers shouting at staff on tills at The Coop in Thornton-Cleveleys and pushing past those working in the aisles.

Other Lancashire workers have revealed they have been physically threatened, sworn at, laughed at, ignored, called "dramatic" and made to "feel worthless."

One said: “I received verbal abuse on a daily basis, due to having to restrict items to customers. I've been told that I will be responsible for their elderly relatives dying of starvation.”

Another claims a customer has made them cry on the till and triggered a panic attack.

And a third said: "A customer threatened to physically abuse the store manager and when asked to leave, the doors had to be shut, and staff and customers were alarmed.”

A fourth said some people have lied to staff about being carers so they can come shop with family and friends while another says shoplifters have threatened to spit and cough on them.

Other workers feel that some people are ignorant to the massive risk they take of catching the virus by coming to work every day and one was even accused of trying to scam a customer regarding a problem with a fast-track payment.

Usdaw is now calling on the Government to bring in stiffer penalties for those who assault workers.

Paddy Lillis, Usdaw general secretary, said: “We are shocked that violence, threats and abuse have doubled during this national emergency. At a time when we should all be working together to get through this crisis, it is a national 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.

“Life on the front line of retail is normally pretty tough for many shop workers and has become much worse during the coronavirus emergency. Shop workers are on the front line, feeding the country, providing an essential service in very difficult circumstances, working long hours in busy stores, facing abuse from customers and of course, concerned they may contract Covid-19.

“The safety of our members is absolutely paramount, but they tell us that some of the shopping public are resisting social distancing measures in stores and can become abusive when asked to queue and maintain a two-metre gap. Our message to the public is there is no excuse for abusing shop workers - please treat our members with the respect they deserve.

“Shops are the cornerstone of our communities, but they can only operate with staff, who clearly do not have the option to work from home.”

Mark Whittle, director of membership at the North and Western Chamber of Commerce and Preston BID manager, said both organisations would like to thank those working on the front line, or behind the scenes, during these times.

Meanwhile, Paul Foster, development manager for the Federation of Small Businesses, based at Squires Gate in Blackpool, said: “While we understand that tensions are running high and frustration levels are rising as the lock-down continues, it is important that we recognise the brilliant work that our retail sector is doing to keep shelves stocked and serve customers.

"They are some of the unsung heroes of this crisis and deserve the utmost respect. News that they are suffering abuse from an element of their customer base is completely unacceptable.

"These shops don’t have to open, they are providing a crucial local service and are working around the clock to provide for people amidst a really testing set of circumstances, we echo calls for them to be respected and protected.”

A Lancashire Constabulary spokesperson is urging people to report such incidents to police where appropriate by calling 101. In an emergency, call 999.