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New research reveals shocking amount of abuse experienced by Australian retail workers

As the holiday season comes to an end and some of the pressure on Australian retail workers subsides, new research by the University of Sydney (USYD) and the Australian National University (ANU) reveals the massive toll of the pandemic on these workers.

The report, titled Pandemic Pressures: Job Security and Customer Relations for Retail Workers, found that a startling 56 per cent of workers in the retail, fast-food, and distribution industry had experienced customer abuse in the past year.  This was especially the case for women, young workers, and culturally and linguistically diverse workers.

Report co-author Professor Rae Cooper, from the University of Sydney Business School, said, “Workers feel disrespected and report that they have been on the receiving end of disrespectful treatment, threatening behaviour and bad manners from retail customers.”

The research also revealed that 55 per cent of casual workers, 44 per cent of permanent part-time workers, and 40 per cent of permanent full-time workers felt their job security had decreased during the pandemic.

“Due to pandemic-related job losses, many workers in the sector are feeling much more insecure than they were before the pandemic and are seeking better security of employment.  We need to make jobs in this sector more secure and predictable as we move into recovery,” Professor Cooper elaborated.

Employees in the fast-food, retail, and distribution sectors make up around 11 per cent of the Australian workforce and these industries were among the most impacted by border closures in the past year. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that around 64,000 hospitality workers had lost their jobs by November 2020, even as the Australian economy saw record sales in household items and recreational goods, and a significant increase in online shopping. 

What can employers do?

With more than one in two retail workers experiencing abuse and hostility from customers, there’s a need for stricter regulations to protect these workers. Organisations like the National Retail Association outline the need for governmental support through stronger laws to ban abusive customers and a shift in community attitudes to highlight unacceptable behavior towards these workers.  

Professor Cooper agreed, stressing the need for a zero-tolerance approach by employers and managers to abuse of their frontline workers.

“Retail workers tend to be young, many are employed casually and they are usually earning the minimum wage. They deserve respect and thanks for their essential work for the community through the pandemic… Staff need to know what to do in nasty situations, and that someone will be there to help them immediately if customers are badly behaved or threatening,” she said.

Another suggestion has been the use of signage and announcements in stores that there will be no tolerance for bad behaviour and that customers found treating staff poorly will be ejected and not served.

Professor Cooper stated, “I think using a framing of ‘respect, kindness and care’ is a good place to start. All of us can relate to these very human needs and perhaps it might help to remind people.”

READ MORE: Will wages shift in 2022?

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Rhea Laxmi Nath

Rhea Laxmi Nath

Rhea L Nath is a Sydney-based writer and editor. In 2022, she was named Young Journalist of the Year at the NSW Premier's Multicultural Communications Awards.

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