Mark Wingett reports on shopworkers’ union Usdaw, which has put the safety of store staff at the forefront of its campaigning for the past three years.

In 2002 shopworkers’ union Usdaw produced a groundbreaking survey that not only painted a stark picture of the state of retail crime but gave a much-needed wake-up call to boardroom members of retail chains that their staff were facing increasing abuse and violence everyday, just trying to do their jobs.
Voices from the Frontline highlighted the impact of crime on retail outlets and, most importantly, store staff. Usdaw health and safety officer Doug Russell comments: “The research produced statistics that hadn’t really been brought to people’s attention before, for example, in half of the stores surveyed people had given up working because they couldn’t face or cope with the day-to-day aggression they were enduring.

“The results did not surprise us because they pretty much matched the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) crime figures at the time. What surprised other people was the contribution this issue made to turnover of staff, long-term sickness and absence, and the frequency of verbal abuse, which showed that for a third of the stores it was a daily occurrence. That shocked a lot of the board members and managing directors of the retail firms.”

The survey was carried out in October 2002 at the launch of the union’s Freedom from Fear campaign, held at its Retail Trade Conference. The event was attended by 100 delegates, from the smallest stores to biggest high street chains, including representatives from Spar UK and the Co-operative Group.

Russell continues: “We used this as a launch because it was a good target audience to get feedback from, and we interviewed delegates about the scale of the problem in their stores. From that we were able to put together the Voices from the Frontline survey, which was the key launch document for the campaign.”
According to Russell, the idea for the Freedom from Fear campaign came about in the early part of 2002, but it wasn’t the first time Usdaw had raised the issue of violence against store staff.

He explains: “Back in 1989 we did our own small survey of members. We took a snapshot of the issues affecting stores and staff, and produced our first report on violence in the retail sector in 1990. This was very important because in the late 1980s the issue of violence, health and safety took off in the public sector in a big way.

“The report was designed to raise the profile of the issue. We spoke to the Health Minister at the time and got some support behind it, which led to a guidance document from the Ministry of Health for retail employers being launched in 1995.” Russell believes this initial step led the larger retailers to check their general security polices to protect their staff. However, it became clear by the late 1990s that the impetus had waned and the problem of violence against staff had worsened.

Russell says: “Our general secretary raised the topic again at a fringe meeting organised by the BRC at the Labour Party Conference in 2002, and there was a lot of feedback from this. We decided from there to make a big push on the issue and raise the profile even further, which led to the Freedom from Fear campaign.”

Throughout 2003 and 2004, the union pushed the campaign on a number of different fronts. One was politically, getting ministers to recognise the scale of the retail crime. The other was raising the issue publicly, part of which included Respect for Shopworkers week, and special days held over the past three years. One such event was attended by the then Home Secretary David Blunkett; at another in 2004 a video message from Prime Minister Tony Blair was screened, showing just how far the message had got.
Russell says: “These days are things we will try to repeat because they get the public engaged and they allow them to voice their support.

“Behind the scenes there was a lot of lobbying of ministers in the Home Office on the subject of violence against staff and related issues, such as compensation for victims.

“We also lobbied local authorities because they have a crucial and central role to play in tackling this issue. They’ve got responsibilities under crime and disorder legislation and general community safety. Where they have set up a local crime reduction partnership they tend to ignore the business side of the community.”

As Russell points out, business involvement in partnerships is on the up but work still needs to be done to get more involvement from all sides.
“Police and local councils have to be open to local business needs, and local businesses need to get over their fear and uncertainty about asking for help or advice,” he adds.

The union, for its part, is keen to build up examples of where its members have worked successfully with local crime reduction partnerships to improve not only their business but other local companies’.
While Usdaw concentrates on its retail members, Russell believes they can still help independent businesses. He explains: “We’ve held joint seminars with local authorities where local businesses, police and other local authorities have been invited to talk about violence against staff and retail crime in general, from which we have received good feedback.
“We can’t help too much with independent business but through these seminars and the campaign we can get best practice initiatives into the public domain and that can benefit everyone.”

The other side of the Freedom from Fear campaign has been to concentrate on protecting staff.
Russell says: “One of things we found from the report was that you can take one employer and two stores that are almost identical, and in one of them the staff would be relatively content, while in the other there would be a lot of complaints and feelings of insecurity. The difference between the two stores is all down to individual store management and inconsistency of store policy. All the big retailers have policies, however this seems to be placed in many different pigeon holes, for example, loss prevention will deal with some of the problems, while health and safety will deal with others, so a blurring of lines and responsibilities filters down to the stores.”

Thankfully, as Russell points out, c-store chains are leading the way in dealing with this issue. He continues: “Companies like Somerfield and the Co-operative Group now have all these functions handled by one team, which has eased the confusion.
“However, all these policies have to filter down to the store floor and again this causes problems and inconsistencies. We develop model policies that can be used as a benchmark to test company policies. They cover both the protection from violence but also respect towards staff members, because they are inevitably linked.”

Russell admits that Freedom from Fear is no longer Usdaw’s highest profile campaign but says it has become part of the union’s mainstream work.
He says: “We are still involved in the political lobbying side of things, like ID cards and crime prevention issues. Our main drive with the campaign is still to try to improve the consistency of employer policies on staff safety. We know they are not working as well as they could, and we are putting a lot of work into training our reps to use risk-assessment checklists to see if these policies are being used properly on the store floor.

“Most of our members, for example the Co-operative Group, have numerous sites in various areas, so some can slip through the net, which happens with many businesses. Our job is to make sure everyone gets the right help across the whole retail sector, so that staff can look forward to going to work and enjoying their working environment.”