The NSW Government has this week introduced legislation that will create severe penalties for the abuse of workers in the retail sector.
The Minns Government’s Crimes Legislation Amendment (Assaults on Retail Workers) Bill will introduce three new offences into the Crimes Act 1900, with strict penalties for those who assault, stalk, harass, intimidate or wound retail workers in the course of their duty.
Sentences can be anywhere up to 11 years in the case of wounding or causing grievous bodily harm, while harassment and intimidation can carry a charge of up to four years. They’re strict measures, coming in the wake of reports that up to 85% of retail workers have been abused or assaulted at work.
In isolation it’s a good decision, designed to protect people who are simply doing their job, with regular mentions that instances like these have spiked significantly since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. But it’s worth examining the context that has shaped such a response in that time.
HOW WE GOT HERE
The pandemic brought chaos and uncertainty - we all remember the toilet paper droughts and long, mask-wearing lines that created anger, chaos and frustration. There were brawls at the shopping centre being shown on the news for crying out loud. It was like the start of a zombie film.
Meanwhile retail workers not only faced uncertainty over their own future employment, but had to bear the brunt of that chaos, as well as frustrated customers who were confused, scared and reluctant to adjust to a controlled and possibly more equitable way of doing things.
Then the pandemic and restrictions abated and products started to become more freely available, but only for a while - because with Russia’s decision to pick a fight with Ukraine and disastrous flooding, the price of random objects suddenly shot up again.
It should be noted that the media has regularly failed to help, sharing and at times fuelling our outrage about the sudden price hikes in certain vegetables and other random items while taking little to no time to explain the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and other contributing factors.
They didn’t do their job and tell us that the subsequent raft of sanctions on Russia created issues in access to oil and gas, as well as the wealth of other materials regularly produced by the European superpower. Those sanctions increased the price of commodities like oil, which increased the price of freight, which was passed directly on to us.
Lettuce was up to $12 or more per head in some corners for crying out loud. But that simple fact makes a better headline than actually explaining the cause. All the supermarkets did was put a card about the size of your hand up next to the product in question offering a brief explanation.
Once again, those retail workers who had hung on to their jobs so far were forced to bear the brunt of customer frustrations. Can we really expect a 20 year old working in produce at the supermarket or at the register to be able to explain the market factors that were impacting prices? No - and they certainly shouldn’t be abused for it.
Now we’re on the cusp of an economic crisis, with interest rates rising relentlessly, housing availability dangerously low, mortgage repayments and rent prices exploding, electricity bills about to almost double and HECS/HELP debts rising rapidly, to name but a few things. It brings a number of expletives to mind.
It’s safe to say that the majority of Australians, even those in the middle class, are really feeling the pressure amid a disappointing level of support.
At the supermarket, prices are rising so rapidly that staff can’t remove the old prices before re-advertising that same number as a ‘special’ ahead of more hikes.
Dairy items have gone up almost 15% in the last year, bread by over 10%. Want to forego the supermarket and grab some fast food instead? Takeaway options have gone up over 7 per cent. We’re still struck by spontaneous product shortages. Leisure and recreation options, ways to escape the stress of everything else, are also going up.
All of this is in NO WAY justification for the horrible acts some people choose to inflict on retail workers when confronted with these numbers at the register. They had nothing to do with it - it certainly wasn’t due to a wage blowout.
But after overcoming constant adversity, job losses and more for nearly two whole years, to be hit with even more financial pain without the context of a global pandemic is clearly proving too much for many people who have already struggled for so long.
The frustration and anger are inevitable, even though they’re totally misdirected.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Perhaps we’d be able to understand if these companies who are passing on costs were also struggling. While many small and medium businesses indeed are up against the wall in the face of paltry rebates and incentives, it’s a pain that doesn’t appear to be felt at the bigger end - but who’s surprised?
In February 2023 it was confirmed that Woolworths had posted a $907 million half-year profit. That’s nearly a billion in six months and 14 per cent up on the year before, while consumers struggle every day with rising prices.
The CEO claims that these numbers are coming off a ‘low-base’ from the Covid era and don’t equate to a ‘real’ profit, but it’s hard to care when they’re hitting us with price increases almost fortnightly.
Meanwhile Coles posted a more modest $616 million profit over the same period. Talk about a struggle.
Could any of that good news lead to investigating ways to reduce the costs for consumers from either chain? No. Instead, they’ve committed to new and potentially invasive technological measures to combat shoplifting, instead of examining the reason shoplifting is at an all-time high to begin with - and why they can still post nearly a billion dollars in profit in spite of it.
While the new laws are necessary - in part due to the relentless price rises and profiteering - they also unintentionally create a permissive atmosphere for more of the same, with even less accountability from those making the decisions. We’re certainly not going to be seeing the CEOs of these supermarket chains popping down to the local store to speak with customers about their concerns, let alone take a register and deliver the bad news personally.
It’s good to know that the government is going to help these innocent retail workers who have become the unwitting faces of inflation in the eyes of frustrated consumers, especially as many of them are on the minimum wage and facing the same challenges themselves.
But what about the rest of us?
While the new laws help us remember where we should be directing our frustrations, the fact that we have no access to pricing decisions or the rationale of the people behind them proves they’re also a reminder that no one is listening.