Legislative Council: Wednesday, October 18, 2023


Frontline Retail Workers

The Hon. T.T. NGO (15:01): My question is to the Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector. Can the minister tell the council about steps taken to deal with violence against frontline retail workers?

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (15:01): I thank the honourable member for his question, and his commitment to protecting workers in South Australia. As members of this council would be aware, incidents of abuse and violence toward retail workers are sadly all too common. We saw this increase dramatically during the COVID period where retail workers who were on the frontline during significant shortages of goods, particularly household items, bore the brunt of the frustration and the unnecessary abuse and sometimes violence directed towards them from members of the public.

Surveys of retail employees have indicated that as many as 85 per cent have experienced verbal abuse from customers, and nearly 8 per cent have been the victims of physical violence. From August 2022 to August 2023, SAPOL's figures indicate that just over 200 criminal charges were laid in relation to violence and aggression in the retail sector.

At the last election, the now government committed to making assaulting a frontline retail worker an aggravated offence, to send an unequivocal message that retail workers, who are very often young people in their first jobs, do not deserve to be threatened, abused or suffer violence simply for doing their jobs. The election commitment was delivered with new regulations last year that increase the maximum penalty for a basic assault against retail workers from two to five years, and the maximum penalty for assault causing harm from three to seven years; however, we know that while introducing higher penalties often does act as a deterrent, a lot of things need to be put in place, and there needs to be a sustained campaign of education about safe work practices to protect retail workers.

SafeWork SA has worked very closely with the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association in relation to education on this issue. Between January 2022 and January 2023, SafeWork SA has run a targeted compliance campaign in retail workplaces throughout metropolitan and regional South Australia. I am advised that campaign included visits to 89 different workplaces and the issuing of 28 improvement notices. I am informed service stations had the highest number of notices issued; however, other notices were issued at workplaces including supermarkets, pharmacies and fast-food outlets.

The main issues identified by SafeWork SA have been twofold. Firstly, too often businesses are not putting in place safe systems of work designed to control and manage the risk to their staff. Simple systems to address violence and aggression can include things like security screens, duress alarms, signage and CCTV cameras as physical implementations. Secondly, many retail workers have insufficient training on how to deal with violent or aggressive customers, including how to deal with situations at the highest end, such as armed robberies.

The campaign conducted by SafeWork has been about education for businesses, not punishment. Conducting worksite visits and issuing improvement notices puts business on notice about health and safety issues and gives them the opportunity to deal with those issues before more significant enforcement action needs to be considered.

That work has had real results on the ground, including the installation of bank teller like security screens at McDonald's in Hindley Street, the first instance of such screens being used in a fast food venue in South Australia and, I think, if I am remembering correctly, perhaps the first of its kind in a McDonald's in Australia. I look forward to continuing to work with SafeWork SA and workers' representatives such as Josh Peak and the SDA to improve the health and safety of retail workers throughout South Australia.