Customer Isn’t Always Right: Victoria Joins Push Against Customer Abuse

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Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan has announced plans for new legislation to discourage customer abuse of retail, public transport, and fast food workers.

The Victorian government of Australia is introducing new laws to protect retail, public transport, and fast food workers from customer abuse and assault.

Victoria’s Premier, Jacinta Allan, announced on May 18 that the Labor government will change the law to reflect the unacceptable nature of attacks on customer service workers.

“These workers deserve nothing but our respect. And we’re going to help make sure they get it,” Ms. Allan said in a media release.

“These new laws will send a powerful message: if you think you can get away with assaulting or abusing these workers—you’re wrong and you will face the consequences.”

Is the Change Needed?

A high percentage of customer service workers in 2023 reported regular abuse from customers and a majority of workers experienced physical and mental health impacts.

The Shop, Distributive, and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA)—the union for retail, warehousing, and fast food workers—conducted a national survey of 4,200 workers in 2023. It found that 87 percent of the workers had experienced verbal abuse from a customer in the last 12 months.

The workers not only reported verbal abuse but 12.5 percent reported physical violence, 9 percent reported spitting, and 17 percent reported sexual abuse and violence.

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The SDA survey also found that 76 percent of those who had been verbally abused experienced it on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

Repeat offenders were also identified to be a problem because 52 percent of respondents reported that the same customer was abusive or violent towards them on multiple occasions.

Importantly, 63 percent of the respondents reported impacts on their mental and physical health, including stress, anxiety, loss of self-esteem, burnout, and depression.

Enacting the Change

The government will convene a Worker Protection Consultation Group to oversee the development of the legislative approach. The group’s intention is to ensure that a wide range of people are heard so that the changes in legislation are balanced.

The Worker Protection Consultation Group will consider new penalties or offences, expanding or strengthening existing offences, and protections against stalking, harassment, or intimidation.

“It’s disappointing that we have to legislate against this—but clearly too many people think it’s ok to intimidate and harass customer service workers,” Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said in the release.

“People must be safe at work from abuse—we’ll do everything we can to ensure this.”

The Worker Protection Consultation Group will work towards introducing a Bill to Parliament by the end of 2025.

A man restocks trolleys at a Coles supermarket in Albany, Western Australia, on April 11, 2024. (Susan Mortimer/The Epoch Times)A man restocks trolleys at a Coles supermarket in Albany, Western Australia, on April 11, 2024. (Susan Mortimer/The Epoch Times)

Response of Australian Retail Association

The Australian Retailers Association (ARA), which employs over 1.4 million Australians, responded to the Victorian government’s announcement of legislation reform.

The ARA wrote that the reforms will join Victoria with other Australian states that have changed their legislation to address increased customer hostility and assault.

The CEO of the ARA, Paul Zahra, urged Australian states that have not adopted such reform—Queensland, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory—to follow Victoria.

“We’re mindful that the majority of customers are respectful and do the right thing, but the small minority are making retail a dangerous environment to work in,” Mr. Zahra said.

“All retail workers, whether they’re a casual in their first job in a department store or doing the night shift at the local convenience store, have a right to feel safe at work.”

Mr. Zahra said that the ARA is extremely pleased that Ms. Allan has responded to their and the SDA’s views and the needs of retail workers with strong action to deter violence and ensure retail staff safety.

“No one deserves to be intimidated or harassed or threatened with weapons, for simply doing their job,” he said.

“People who engage in these types of behaviours are committing a crime—it’s as simple as that.”

Other States’ Laws to Protect Customer Service Workers

Legislation reform to better protect customer service workers is not individual to Victoria. It has also occurred in New South Wales (NSW), Western Australia (WA), Northern Territory, and South Australia.

Following the SDA survey conducted in 2023, the government of NSW passed a bill creating three new offences with maximum penalties of four, six, and 11 years of imprisonment, depending on the offence.

Also in response to the survey, the government of WA passed new laws in 2024 to target violent offenders who assault retail workers. The laws state that individuals who assault retail workers face up to seven years in prison or three years and a fine of $36,000 (US$24,000).

The previous penalties for assaulting a retail worker in WA were 18 months in prison and an $18,000 (US$12,000) fine.

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