We are well into the Christmas shopping period, and so now is a good time to remind everyone of the No-one Deserves a Serve campaign from the Shop Assistants Union (the SDA).
Retail trade employs ten per cent of all Australians, according to the ABS. Australia’s retail industry contributes more value to the Australian economy than agriculture, utility services, wholesale trade, accommodation, transport, telecommunications, rental, administrative services, and recreation. It is of comparable scale to all manufacturing, public administration, and education and training.
We live in a society that is perfectly willing to make use of the many services that retail workers provide, but will treat the workers who make it all possible as less than human. It is entirely inconsistent to celebrate retail as a consumer while degrading and demeaning other human beings due to their line of work.
Christmas, as I’m sure many of us know, is a chaotic time for shopping. As we get closer to the day itself, queues extend exponentially, shelves empty, opening hours extend, and the urge to buy will grow. Sometimes, we can get caught up in the moment and buy anything. Other times, there’s one perfect gift for someone close to us, but the store has just sold out.
Too many people find themselves in that situation and decide to take it out on the staff. The SDA conducted an online survey of retail workers between December 2016 and February 2017. The survey revealed that eighty-five per cent of workers had experienced targeted verbal abuse from a customer at least once in the last twelve months. More than a quarter of those workers said the abuse comes at least once a week. A third of workers felt threatened at least once in the last twelve months.
One in seven experienced physical violence, while one in eight experienced sexual violence and abuse. Less than three in eight workers have received any training for situations involving violent or abusive customers, and less than half of reported incidents were acted upon by management.
Too many Australians dismiss this as “part of the industry”. Accepting this line of argument is the equivalent of deciding that we can never improve any workplace so long as the bad parts are publically known to applicants.
Abuse and violence cannot be allowed to remain the norm. Talking to some of the respondents to this survey, you see how the dehumanisation of retail workers has spread through our society: there are stories of managers trying to de-escalate a situation and being choke-slammed as their reward; terrible reports of spitting and throwing items such as hot or rotten food; and incidents of swords, syringes, and other weapons being used to threaten staff.
When these become extreme enough for formal charges to be laid, judges have dismissed cases with the idea that such treatment would not have occurred if the offender had received “prompt and proper service”. Even accepting the premise of a few seconds of delay, or the occasional harmless error, it is not acceptable to respond to such rare and minor inconveniences with a targeted, violent, or abusive response.
This is not acceptable in Australian society, and I commend the SDA for their work. Not only have they brought these figures to our attention, but they have campaigned with employers to help reform the behaviour of customers. This has been a continued effort to build goodwill between employer, employee, and union, with the key outcome of ensuring that people who are doing their jobs are not being endangered or driven to despair.
But the campaign is unending. If we do eventually convince all Australians to admit that retail workers deserve to be treated as human beings, there will still be events which cause consumers to snap. When Coles and Woolworths began to phase out single-use plastic bags, the SDA launched a pre-emptive campaign titled Don’t Bag Retail Staff.
Despite the success of the No-one Deserves a Serve campaign, customers began to abuse retail workers about the shopping bag changes. This is not a process with an end-point, but a cause which we must treat as un-ending. And in this struggle, the SDA will have my full support. I invite you all to join them in this.
David Smith is the Labor Senator for the ACT and the Labor candidate for the new seat of Bean.