Millions of people are likely to experience violence and intimidation at some point in their working lives
8-14 Feb 2016 is heartunions week. To mark the week, Left Foot Forward are running a series of articles about trade unions. You can find out more at heartunions.org
One-in-eight people have experienced violence at work, according to research published by the TUC today.
The poll, carried out by YouGov for the TUC and released today to coincide with the start of Heartunions week, reveals that 12 per cent of people have experienced work-related violence, including being pushed, punched and even stabbed.
Medical and health workers were the most likely to experience work-related violence (22 per cent), followed by workers in education (12 per cent), hospitality and leisure (11 per cent), retail (9 per cent) and manufacturing (6 per cent.)
The TUC has calculated this could mean as many as 870,000 medical and health workers, 470,000 workers in education and 430,000 workers in the hospitality and leisure industry could have experienced violence at work.
Su Patel, 54, is a union rep at leading supermarket in South West London, where she has worked for the past 15 years.
During that time she has faced verbal and physical abuse, which she recounted to the TUC:
“It is important to say that the vast majority of customers I deal with are lovely, normal people.However, I’ve faced abuse at work on several occasions in the last 6 months alone.
Customers who can’t find what they’re looking for quickly can get very angry, bump into staff on purpose or push trolleys towards them. Once during the busy lunch hour period one of our regular customers shouted at me that I need to learn English and that I should go back to where I came from.
On another occasion a well-dressed man in a suit was buying his lunch at one of the self-service tills. He put the money in the wrong slot and I had to call security to bring the keys to the till so we could open it and refund his money. It only took a couple of minutes and I apologised for keeping him waiting, but he got very angry and threw the hot chicken that he had picked up in my face, only just missing me.
At my store we have a young lad with learning difficulties. Once when he was working on the checkout on a Saturday afternoon a female customer lent over the conveyor belt and slapped him in the face, saying he belonged in an institution. The boy was absolutely distraught.
As well as working in the supermarket I’m also the union rep here, and I’ve had staff talk to me about the effects violence at work has on them. Some feel like they don’t want to come to work but they have no choice as they need to pay their bills. Others swap shifts to avoid regular customers who abuse them – but this impacts on their family life and home time.
Thanks to the union we now have proper reporting processes in place and line managers try to be supportive and protect colleagues or serve difficult customers themselves.
When I was attacked I initially felt disgusted with the behaviour of the customer, but because I’ve got my union behind me I felt supported and was able to move on. But it’s not acceptable to be treated with such little respect by people and I fear the issue is getting worse.”
The TUC’s general secretary Frances O’Grady said today:
“All over the country, union reps play a key role in stopping violence at work and supporting union members who are victims of abuse. We need strong unions working with employers to combat unacceptable behaviour and protect workers – and anyone worried about violence in their workplace should join a union today.”
The Trade Union Bill threatens unions in a number of ways. If passed, the bill means that employees experiencing unacceptable working conditions, including violence, will not have easy recourse to union representation and their right to strike will be jeopardised.
Under the Trade Union Bill, employers will be able to cover striking workers with agency workers, which has huge health and safety implications in certain industries, and will lead to worse public services in others.
The bill is also a threat to democracy, as it proposes huge restrictions on peaceful picketing and protests. Picket supervisors will have to give their names to the police and carry a letter of union approval – this has raised concerns about blacklisting and will also make strikes much more difficult to organise.
In November, the government climbed down from proposals that would require unions to publish picket and protest plans 14 days prior to any action, including details of how and when unions planned to use social media during the time of action.
Proposals to make every individual on the front line submit their name to authorities were also retracted, having been deemed excessively harsh at a consultation.
However, the bill contains other clauses which are just as worrying, including the requirement of a 50 per cent turnout and 40 per cent support in union votes for strike action (failure to achieve this would make a strike illegal).
This will change everything for unions; meanwhile the Tories will be able to say that they listened to the public and softened the blow in November. It’s almost as though the absurd social media and publishing clauses were never designed to stick around….
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward