Australian retail associations are urging state and territory governments across the country to implement tougher penalties for people who assault retail workers.

In 2022, the South Australian Government introduced a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment for people convicted of basic assault against a retail worker on the job and seven years when the assault causes harm.

More recently, New South Wales Labor committed to implementing harsher penalties if they win government at this month’s state election.

The Australian Retailers Association (ARA) CEO Paul Zahra said customer aggression – including assaults – has remained prevalent post-pandemic, prompting the need for government intervention.

“Customer aggression has been an ongoing challenge for frontline staff,” Zahra said. “We saw a big rise in the number of customers who chose to unleash their frustrations on retail staff during the pandemic.

“We expected this to subside when restrictions lifted – but it simply hasn’t.”

Zahra said that deterrence is lacking in many states across Australia. He added that aggressive behaviour can have a severe impact on the health and wellbeing of frontline retail staff, and that it should be treated as a criminal act.

“The rise of anti-social behaviour is also a concern for us,” Zahra continued. “A crime does not need to have been committed in order for physical or mental harm to be done to retail workers and so we also need the community to play their part in stamping out unacceptable behaviour.

The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) national secretary Gerard Dwyer said retail staff should not be abused simply for doing their job.

“They are essential workers and deserve customer support,” Dwyer said. “ No one deserves a serve. Shoppers should check themselves before they check out.”

The ARA and SDA commended the reforms implemented in South Australia last year and welcomed the commitment from NSW Labor.

“We are calling on all states and territories to adopt a similar approach to aggressive behaviour starting in NSW – irrespective of who wins the state election,” Zahra said.

National Retail Association (NRA) CEO Greg Griffith is also calling for further laws to tackle retail abuse in Australia.

Speaking on the recent South Australian law, Griffith said over 200 reports have been made so far to police on retail staff abuse.

“This shows the law does have a positive impact for retailers, creating safer working and shopping environments,” Griffith said. “However, more power needs to be given to police to effectively act on violent individuals.

“We urge retailers to increase the reporting of these incidents to police across the country to better protect our retail workers.”

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