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'Some staff reported being spat at': Public asked to respect shop workers as sales begin

Labour shortages and abuse from customers have made the work environment more difficult this year.

Image: Shutterstock/Studio Roux

WITH THE SEASONAL sales resuming today after a brief interlude for Christmas, trade union Mandate is once again underlining the need for consumers and employers to be mindful of efforts made by retail workers during the pandemic.

Just as the busy pre-Christmas period arrived earlier this month, the union highlighted the experience of frontline shop workers, cashiers and checkout operators amid “worrying reports” of an increase in verbal abuse from customers.

Speaking to The Journal last week, one security professional working in a large supermarket in the west of the country, said he had been spat on by a customer during an incident this year. 

“That really took its toll on me because I look after my father,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had to put him in a home because he has Parkinson’s. So, I had to stay away from him for a while. I couldn’t go near him because I didn’t know what was in that spit.”

Mask-wearing is still an issue in many retail spaces, he said.

“Like, 100% of the staff come into the workplace and they’re wearing masks,” he added.

“Then we see customers coming in without masks on the way and we’re thinking, why aren’t they being challenged? Why aren’t they being stopped at the door?”

“We would probably see the [post-Christmas] sales as having an equal impact on our members as the lead-in to Christmas,” Mandate General Secretary Gerry Light told The Journal.

“Obviously, when we put the call out a couple of weeks ago, we were thinking about the run-up to Christmas but also the January sales period as well.”

While the vast majority of customers “have bought the message” and done what was asked of them this year, the environment remains challenging for shop workers, Light said.

One ongoing issue is the current shortage of retail workers.

The nature of Ireland’s bit-by-bit reopening process this year has meant that some parts of the economy opened sooner than others.

Because of this, sectors have lost workers to other sectors.

According to a Department of Social Protection working paper, published in October, up to 26% of PUP claimants — roughly 135,000 workers — who had returned to work at that stage were working in a different sector than they were when they started receiving the payment.

“What we’ve seen [since the start of the pandemic] is that a lot of people in retail have decided to move out or move on,” he said.

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“That can be a huge stressor at this time of the year — ensuring that people are given their adequate breaks and ensuring they have sufficient support.”

Abuse and workplace safety are the other big issues, he said.

Light explained: “The standard stuff that was reported back to us was verbal abuse and racial abuse in some circumstances. We also have some who are reporting being spat at as well.”

These challenges aren’t going anywhere in 2022, he said, as long as Covid continues to cloud the outlook.

But both the public and employers have a major role to play in ensuring the day-to-day safety of retail workers, Light said.

“As we’ve gone through the Covid journey, I think maybe some degree complacency sort of set in when we’re talking about wearing the face masks, hand sanitising, ensuring adequate social distancing, crowd control and ventilated workspaces,” he said.

“There shouldn’t be a situation where staff have to deal with unnecessary levels of stress and exposure to dangers, particularly associated with Covid.” 

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