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Scared to work: The growing prevalence and costs of retail worker abuse

By Nick Wilson | |6 minute read
Scared To Work The Growing Prevalence And Costs Of Retail Worker Abuse

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a spike in retail worker abuse in Australia and beyond. Moving forward, what can employers do to help?

The majority of retail workers in Australia said abuse and crime are pushing retail workers out of their jobs. Eighty-five per cent of retail workers have been either abused or assaulted on the job.

In 2020, a survey found that in the year to the survey, more than 88 per cent of retail union members had experienced verbal abuse from a customer. Additionally:


• Fifteen per cent experienced physical customer violence.
• Eleven per cent experienced sexual harassment or abuse.
• Of those who had been sexually harassed, 36 per cent of incidents had been perpetrated by customers.

An epidemic of abuse

Perhaps most concerning, the incident rates appear to be increasing. Research from the McKell Institute found that, in NSW, rates of retail worker intimidation, stalking, and harassment have been increasing for over a decade, but there was a spike during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Incidents in the Sydney local government area (LGA) increased by 42 per cent during the pandemic, while NSW saw a 22 per cent increase. A survey of UK retail workers found a majority believed the increased rate of workplace abuse and harassment over the pandemic resulted from cost-of-living pressures.

“The retail sector has been profoundly, yet unevenly, affected by the COVID-19 crisis,” said Professor Rae Cooper of the University of Sydney Business School.

“Workers feel disrespected and report that they have been on the receiving end of disrespectful treatment, threatening behaviour and bad manners from retail customers. This was especially the case for women, young workers, and culturally and linguistically diverse workers.”

That said, experts believe the rates are deflated by underreporting. This might occur for many reasons, including the normalisation of abuse in retail, embarrassment, a false belief that the relevant incident is not serious enough to be reported, fear of repercussion, being unaware of rights and remedies, and so on.

The costs

Retail abuse can contribute to higher levels of anxiety, stress, and depression among affected workers. Similarly, the physical costs can be devastating, even fatal. As noted by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland: “There are other consequences from work-related violence and aggression, including economic and social costs to the worker, their family, their business, and the wider community.”

The economic costs of workplace abuse are many and are not limited to the affected workers. For the employer, a frightened, vulnerable workforce can mean absenteeism costs, sick leave, workers’ compensation claims, higher staff turnover, and lower workplace morale and productivity.

Though all retail workers can be affected by workplace harassment or abuse, it is women and younger workers who are most at risk. Considering the relatively high rates of younger and female employment in the retail sector, the predisposition is concerning.

The role of business leadership

To reduce the likelihood of workplace abuse and harassment, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland recommends leaders should do the following:

  1. Undertake a risk assessment.
  2. Demonstrate strong and committed safety leadership.
  3. Provide effective consultation.
  4. Respond appropriately to incidents.

“Employers are advised to get ahead of the curve on potential risks to worker safety by identifying where abuse can occur, how likely it is to occur, and what the consequences should be,” said Matthew Elmas for SmartCompany.

Where incidents do occur, the Australian Retailers Association recommends employers review what went wrong and how to improve workplace protections to prevent the same from repeating.

“Employers should regularly review procedures to ensure they’re doing the best possible job of protecting workers, including providing additional training and supervision so workers themselves know abuse and violence should not be tolerated,” added Mr Elmas.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: “While a confrontation may be over in minutes, for many victims, their families and colleagues, the physical and emotional impact can last a lifetime.”



Compensation is a term used to describe a monetary payment made to a person in return for their services. Employees get pay in their places of employment. It includes income or earnings, commision, as well as any bonuses or benefits that are connected to the particular employee's employment.


Harassment is defined as persistent behaviour or acts that intimidate, threaten, or uncomfortably affect other employees at work. Because of anti-discrimination laws and the Fair Work Act of 2009, harassment in Australia is prohibited on the basis of protected characteristics.

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson is a journalist with HR Leader. With a background in environmental law and communications consultancy, Nick has a passion for language and fact-driven storytelling.