Stopping shopworkers from being the poor relations

Stewart Forrest outlines what Usdaw is doing to fight the jobs and violence crisis in retail

Usdaw is one of Scotland’s largest unions, with members mainly working in retail. We also have significant membership within road transport, distribution, food manufacturing and call centre operations. In recent years, the retail sector crisis has devastated many high streets and seen household names such as Mothercare, BHS and Thomas Cook disappear. In 2018, 16,000 retail jobs in Scotland were lost with most recent figures suggesting that at least 18,000 Scottish retail jobs were lost during 2019. The crisis in retail has made headline news but the focus of government policy and decision makers, in both Westminster and Holyrood, has not yet followed. Given the economic importance of retail, it is difficult to understand why retail is treated differently to so-called traditional industries such as manufacturing.

Usdaw launched our ‘Save Our Shops’ campaign last year with a number of high-profile campaign days across the country. In Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh, the union mobilised our activists to run street stalls and engage with the public. Over three separate campaign days in each city, the union was able to deliver strong public support for our campaign.

In June last year, we published our own industrial strategy for the sector in Westminster. The strategy, which has been welcomed by the British Retail Consortium, looks at a comprehensive range of issues which are holding the sector back. Within Usdaw’s strategy, there are significant opportunities for the Scottish Government, and councils right across Scotland, to help alleviate the issues facing retail workers. From planning reform that ensures the right mix of residential and commercial properties to tackling excessive car parking fees and unreliable public transport so that people are able to visit high streets, there are many areas of our campaign which will have a Scottish focus.

The Scottish Parliament recently passed a Non-Domestic Rates Bill looking at the important issue of business rates. High street retailers pay approximately 25% of the entire business rates bill despite only making up 5% of the economy. As a result, business rates have become a huge burden on the sector and create an uneven playing field between traditional bricks and mortar retailers and online competitors.

As the Bill was passing through Parliament, an amendment was added which would have devolved authority over setting business rates to local authorities. Usdaw was clear that, based on previous evidence in Scotland and the current system in Northern Ireland, such a proposal would have seen a significant increase in the cost of business rates, exacerbating the retail sector crisis. Usdaw campaigned with the Scottish Retail Consortium to oppose this amendment. The union provided evidence to the Local Government and Communities Committee which was scrutinising the Bill and subsequently wrote to all MSPs highlighting our concerns. Showing that the entire industry (employers, employer representatives and worker representatives) was united in opposition to the proposal helped to ensure the amendment was eventually defeated.

The broader issues behind the retail sector crisis, as well as the need for a comprehensive industrial strategy, have been raised in the Scottish Parliament. In response to specific questions, Jamie Hepburn, Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills has committed to producing an industrial strategy for the retail sector in consultation with stakeholders. Usdaw has contacted Jamie Hepburn to ensure Usdaw is fully engaged in plans to develop an urgent response to the crisis.

In recent years, the levels of violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers has increased significantly. As part of our ‘Freedom from Fear’ campaign, each year, Usdaw surveys workers across Scotland on their experience of retail violence. The interim results from our 2019 survey show that: more than 6 in 10 Scottish retail workers experienced verbal abuse; 32% were threatened by a customer; and 2.3% were assaulted, which amounts to more than 15 assaults every day across all of Scotland’s shopworkers.

Age-restricted sales, and the requirement for shopworkers to ask for proof of age from anyone who looks under the age of 25, is one of the most common flash points for retail workers. In effect, shopworkers are required to enforce the law but are given little or no protection by the law when doing so.

In response to the issues faced by shopworkers, Usdaw has been campaigning for the creation of a specific offence of assaulting a shopworker. To achieve this we have worked closely with Daniel Johnson MSP on the creation of the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill. This Bill, is currently at Stage 1 of the Parliamentary process and has received broad support as part of the consultation process. We remain hopeful that a Protection of Workers’ Bill will soon be enacted in Scotland providing greater security for shop staff.

Our work on an industrial strategy and tackling violence against shopworkers shows that, despite the Conservative Government in Westminster, there will still be opportunities to deliver for our members here in Scotland.

Stewart Forrest is the Divisional Officer for Scotland for Usdaw.