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IT’S 2020, or early 2021. You wake up in the morning, turn on the radio and hear the latest horrific stories of the pandemic — the rising infection rates, the shortages of PPE, and the news of more and more people, like you, who have been hospitalised by the virus.
Perhaps you work in a supermarket, or you’re a bus driver, or a teacher, or a care worker, or any one of the countless public-facing workers that have kept the country moving through the pandemic.
That work has put you in the firing line, and you’ve felt a constant fear of exposure to a virus that’s torn through your community — that at any time you might contract or pass on to your friends, your family, or the people you love. No wonder that 84 per cent of retail staff say the pandemic has damaged their mental health.
That ever-present anxiety has been undeniably difficult for public-facing workers during the crisis. And it’s been made far worse by a lesser-known epidemic affecting workers on the front line.
Many were rightly disgusted by the footage of Clapham Asda workers who were punched, kicked, and beaten by customers in the store.
The scenes were brutal and shocking, but they represent a growing trend of physical and verbal abuse directed at front-line workers that many — including my union, GMB, the representatives of those Asda workers — feel needs addressing in law.
As one of my constituents said in a survey I commissioned after the Clapham incident: “Being on the receiving end of abuse at work is just expected at this point.”
The story is similar for countless workers — shop assistants, cashiers, bus drivers, NHS staff, receptionists, care workers, journalists and more — who have been verbally or physically abused in their workplaces.
The Institute of Customer Service has reported that more than half of public-facing staff have experienced abuse from customers since the start of the pandemic.
Usdaw’s latest survey, published earlier this year, found that almost nine in 10 of those who participated were verbally abused in 2020.
Sixty per cent reported threats of physical violence and 9 per cent said they had been physically assaulted. Seventy-five per cent reported that levels of abuse increased during the pandemic.
This isn’t a minor problem. Eighty per cent of the UK’s workforce occupy customer-facing roles. The rising levels of abuse affect millions of workers, not just in my constituency but across the entire country.
Like many issues, Covid has made this growing problem worse, but it would be a mistake to think it was the cause.
Before the outbreak, the 2020 Crime Report found that 83 per cent of people in the convenience store sector have been subjected to verbal abuse.
It estimated there had been more than 50,000 incidents of violence — a quarter of which resulted in injury.
It’s time to stop the epidemic of violence and back workers struggling for greater legal protections in their workplace.
On Wednesday I’ll bring a motion to Parliament, supported by trade unions from across a variety of sectors and workplaces, the Co-operative Party, and the Institute of Customer Service, to make verbal or physical abuse of all front-line workers a criminal offence.
The Bill follows the precedent set by the 2018 “Protect the Protectors” Act, which made the assault of an emergency worker carrying out their duties a criminal offence.
The legislation was a welcome step forward, but the law has since been applied inconsistently and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t apply to all workers in public-facing roles.
Creating a new offence would encourage law enforcement to proactively investigate and support complaints against perpetrators.
It would also mean empowering front-line workers to speak up and report incidents of abuse, knowing there is a greater chance they will be listened to and investigated.
It’s vital, too, that part of our discussion includes what employers can do to protect workers, with better reporting, support, and more robust pursuit of prosecutions.
We can’t carry on ignoring the issue — clapping these workers for their service in the pandemic as we look the other way when they are verbally or even physically abused at work.
It’s time to end the abuse. Together we can make the government listen and ensure everyone has the safety and dignity they’re entitled to in their workplace.
Olivia Blake is Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam.
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