Union calls for legislation to protect supermarket staff from abuse

MSPs must take a fresh look at legislation that would offer greater legal protection to retail staff in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, a trade union has warned, as shopworkers face unprecedented levels of abuse from customers.

A board displays shopping restrictions at a Tesco supermarket in Warrington after spates of panic buying cleared shelves

Supermarkets and smaller independent stores have become the only businesses to remain open in many parts of the country, offering a lifeline to Scots told to stay home due to restrictions on travel and socialising.

The first confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK led to widespread panic buying last month, with long-life food items and toiletries being stripped from shelves.

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Strict social distancing measures – including a limit on the number of customers allowed in stores – have since eased the strain, but staff remain concerned about their own welfare.

Now a Labour MSP has written to Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf to call for better protection for shop staff.

In a letter seen by Scotland on Sunday, Daniel Johnson said retail workers were exposed to higher number of people on a daily basis than any other category of key worker.

The MSP for Edinburgh Southern first tabled his Protection of Workers bill in October last year, with evidence being taken at committee stage in February.

Although drafted before the pandemic hit, Johnson said his proposed bill may be “an appropriate vehicle” to provide better protection to shop staff, adding that he would be “keen to explore if it could be amended and adapted in light of these new challenges”.

The letter to Yousaf continued: “The ongoing Covid-19 outbreak has put retail workers and the retail sector on the very front line of this crisis.

“Unfortunately it has also highlighted the need to protect retail workers. I would be keen to discuss with you the possibilities of how my proposed bill may present an opportunity to ensure the necessary safeguards for retail workers in their efforts through this crisis and in the future.”

Johnson’s campaign has been backed by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), the majority of whose members work in food retail or the wider distribution chain.

Stewart Forrest, a UDSAW divisional officer in Glasgow, told Scotland on Sunday: “There is a lot of concern among our members for their own health and safety in the workplace.

“There has been a frenzy in retail for three weeks now. Unfortunately, frustrations get taken out on people in the front line – whether they are on a check-out or replenishing shelves.

“These are difficult times and the extra duties fall back on the general assistant. Some of our members are having to police the number of people coming into the store. We would prefer that people shop on their own, and not as a family.”

“If our members point that out or stop people from coming in, they get abuse. If stuff isn’t on the shelves – they get abuse.

“This also stretches to call centres which handle home deliveries.

“Staff are just doing their job. They are not there to be abused.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Shop workers across Scotland are working round the clock to help ensure food and essential items remain available and we applaud their hard work in this unprecedented situation.

“We have produced detailed guidance for employers on this and encourage them to take every step possible to protect their employees.”