Shop workers, particularly those in supermarkets and other food stores, have been on the frontline during this pandemic, supplying us with the essentials of life and keeping the nation fed.
Unlike many of us, they do not have the option of working from home and play an essential role in society and the economy as key workers. For some vulnerable members of our community their local retail workers may be their only human contact each week, providing a social lifeline in this difficult period of isolation.
My constituency, Blaydon, has one of the highest densities of shop workers in the country, with 24% of all jobs in retail with the Metrocentre and a number of local shopping centres providing much of our employment. While many supermarkets have reported a good year, other stores face real uncertainty over their future, and that of their staff, who may have been furloughed for many months.
Throughout the pandemic, the majority of customers have shown real support for the critical role that shop workers and delivery drivers are doing during this crisis. In some cases though, low stock, restrictions on product availability, face masks and social distancing requirements have provided new flash points for the longstanding problem of abuse against workers.
Violence and abuse should never be tolerated in any workplace, yet retail workers continue to face situations that are not only deeply unpleasant, but at times put their health and lives at risk.
Just like our emergency services, many of us will have read reports of customers coughing or even spitting at shop staff in an attempt to infect them. The Crown Prosecution Service has made it clear that such incidents will be treated as assaults and these events should always be reported to the police.
And as a result of panic buying, a number of retailers are continuing to enforce restrictions on the number of certain goods that customers can purchase. When shop staff have been asked to enforce these restrictions at the tills, all too often this has created another flash point for threats, abuse and violence.
Last week, a member of my own staff witnessed such an incident, where a shop worker was spat at for asking someone to wear a mask going into the store. I raised the issue in the House of Commons the following day and called on the Government to bring forward a debate in Parliament on the unacceptable behaviour of a minority towards shop workers.
I am pleased to see that the shop workers union Usdaw is also campaigning for ‘Protection of Workers’ legislation that will tackle abuse against workers dealing with the public. assaulting a shop worker to be made a specific criminal offence, to make it clear that abuse is not part of the job. I support their calls to the Home Secretary to request that this is dealt with as a matter of urgency given the current situation.
But to provide full protection, the government must go much further. Usdaw is demanding that shop workers must be entitled to a real living wage of at least £10 per hour, with a minimum 16 hours per week for everyone who wants it, with contracts based on the normal hours worked and an end to zero hours contracts.
If we truly value our key workers we must make sure they have better rights at work and a proper living wage. Too many people who are in receipt of Universal Credit are already in work.
New research published by Newcastle University this week confirms the link between cutting social security and mental health issues.That’s why I’ve been urging the Chancellor to retain the current £20 uplift to Universal Credit in next month’s Spring Statement. The uplift has made a significant difference to many families. If the government is serious about “levelling up” this is the very least they could do.