The Liquor Stores Association of Western Australia (LSA WA) and the Shop Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA) have joined forces with retailers to draw attention to the increased rates of abuse and assault of retail workers in WA.

Part of the ‘No One Deserves A Serve’ national campaign, one of the demands is for the WA Parliament to increase the penalties for those who assault retail workers, bringing them in line with the penalties imposed in the eastern states.

SDA WA Secretary Ben Harris hopes that the campaign will draw attention to and encourage action on the issue.

“We want it to be high profile to make sure the community understands the aggravated nature of these incidents that affect our members,” he said.

LSA WA has put its weight behind the campaign, and CEO Peter Peck hopes to see greater penalties for those perpetrating abuse of retail workers.

“The goal is to educate people that it’s time for that small group of individuals out there who are abusing people within the retail industry, to have a really good hard look at themselves. Because at the moment they fall into the category of a scumbag,” he said.

Understanding the problem

The SDA, the union covering retail and fast food workers, launched the ’No One Deserves A Serve’ campaign in 2017 to draw awareness to the issue of retailers being abused and assaulted at work.

Harris says: “[The campaign] was framed to raise the profile, not just with employees, but also with members of the public about the consequences of being abusive towards retail and fast food workers, and also to have a plan about things that can be done in-store to improve things. We’ve had a lot of progress over the last few years. We’ve been dealing with employees and employer associations to build some safety and dealing with difficult customers training, which has now been formally done.”

However, there has been a marked increase in the abuse of retail workers since the pandemic. Research by the McKell Institute shows an almost 38.8 per cent increase in assaults of retail workers being reported to the police compared to 2019. For SDA WA members, eight per cent had experienced customer abuse prior to the pandemic, but a 2021 survey revealed that this had increased to 12.5 per cent.

“It was clear that, particularly during COVID, we saw an escalation in the incidence of abuse and violence, particularly when there were shortages of things. If I’m being honest, I probably thought we would have seen the high watermark of misbehaviour during the panic of COVID, but what the most recent data has demonstrated, which is consistent with what we’ve heard from members, is that we’re seeing particularly elevated levels of customer violence at the moment and particularly in Western Australia,” said Harris.

The impact on workers

These incidents have a real effect on retail workers, with 52 per cent of SDA WA members saying they feel uncertain about their safety or feel unsafe in their workplace.

Peck says: “A lot of the people that are copping this [assault] are in their late teens early 20s. It could be their first job. That person [who committed the assault], when they’ve left that store, they’ve forgotten it, but it sits with these [workers] for a prolonged period of time or for the rest of their life. It can have a massive impact on whether they remain in retail or whether it’s just too confronting to come back.

“Where we sit at the moment is that the retail worker is the person who serves the sentence, while the person who committed the crime gets a slap on the wrist and really has no consequences.”

Though incidents of abuse appear to be lower for independent liquor retailers, Peck explained that violence associated with theft is a particular problem for LSA WA members.

“The problem we’ve got is that every time somebody steals something, it’s a person they can’t pay or it’s a bill they can’t pay, and it impacts directly on them. They tend to be a little bit more proactive if somebody’s trying to shoplift, and that’s something we really don’t want to do,” he said.

However, Harris emphasised that abuse of retail workers is not always connected to retail theft.

“A lot of the focus can be about violence associated with theft, but based on the information we get from members, that’s really the tip of the iceberg. From a police point of view, I’m really concerned about making sure that the assaults that come from bad customer behaviour, which escalates from frustration to where they take it too far and actually physically assault our members, gets taken really seriously,” he said.

The end goal

Both Peck and Harris want the WA penalties for assault of retail workers to be made similar to those in NSW. As of June this year, customers who assault, throw a missile at, stalk, harass or intimidate a retail worker while at work can face a maximum penalty of four year’s of imprisonment. This increases to a maximum of six year’s imprisonment if actual bodily harm is caused to the worker, and 11 years’ imprisonment for causing grievous bodily harm.

“We just need to make sure that these perpetrators understand that okay, you might think it’s great, but at the end of the day, there is going to be a consequence, and it’s not going to be what you’ve had in the past,” Peck said.

Harris hopes that increased penalties will provide stronger deterrents, as well as showing retail workers that their safety is valued at work.

“We’re really keen to stamp out and reverse the culture to make sure that retail fast food workers feel safe at work from customers,” he said.

Peck is confident that, through the combined strength of all parties involved in the campaign, real change will be implemented.

“It’s the whole of the retail industry coming to work on this one. It’s not just a liquor thing. We’ve attacked it as a strong, powerful lobbying group that the government can’t ignore, and will have to act on fast because at the end of the day, our members, and I’m sure other retail workers, won’t tolerate anyone dragging their feet on this, whether it be government or opposition,” he said.

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