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Level of abuse against retail workers ‘out of control’



A wave of harassment, vile abuse, shoplifting and other crimes has hit Ireland’s shops and supermarkets, retailers have told RTÉ’s Prime Time.

RGDATA, which represents more than 4,000 independent grocery stores, said the levels of abuse and harassment of retail workers are “out of control”, while grocery giant Tesco Ireland said its staff face daily abuse and threats of violence.

Tara Buckley, RGDATA Director General, said: “The amount of crime, day in, day out, shoplifting, theft, assault, harassment, racist attacks, sexual harassment … our members are really concerned.”

She added: “Young staff are being harassed; the racism staff who are from other countries have to deal with; spitting, kicking, punching, shouting and making a scene in the store, throwing things at them. It’s actually out of control.”

Shop workers across the country say they are experiencing a surge in harassment, physical attacks, shoplifting and anti-social behaviour.

Some of them said they believe some customers have become more aggressive since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shane Gleeson, who runs five Spar shops in Limerick city, said: “I’ve had a bottle of wine broken and been threatened with the broken glass. I’ve had guys with needles. My son was threatened with a knife.”

Sisters Sheila and Catherine Clarke’s family have been in business since the 1960s. They run Clarke’s XL shop in Ballina, Co Mayo.

Sheila said: “At the moment, we’re almost going through a pandemic of petty crime.

“There’s this constant drive to acquire, acquire and if they can’t afford to pay for it, well, then they’ll just take it.”

Sheila and Catherine Clarke say it’s like a pandemic of petty crime

A recent RGDATA survey of the owners of 400 convenience shops, forecourt stores and supermarkets found that 95% of them have been victims of crime in last 12 months.

The survey found that 93% have been victims of shoplifting and a quarter have been the victims of robberies or burglaries.

A fourth-generation shopkeeper in Limerick, Mr Gleeson has witnessed a surge in shoplifting.

He said it should not be downplayed as petty crime, as it is costing him €70,000 to €80,000 per year in just one of his five shops.

Mr Gleeson said that shoplifting is so rampant that a lot of retailers no longer report all incidents to gardaí.

“We would have maybe four or five instances a day in each shop of people attempting to steal. So, if we were to spend our days recording that and going to the gardaí for that, we’d get no work done,” he said.

He does report those who are “doing it every day” and the people who are abusive or threatening to his staff.

“We’ve noticed since Covid a very small element of society has gotten far more aggressive, and it is difficult to deal with,” Mr Gleeson said.

“Routinely, they’ll say, ‘I will wait for you outside’, ‘We’ll get you when you go home’, ‘I will kill you … I’ll burn you out’.”

Shane Gleeson says his son was attacked by a person with a needle

Mr Gleeson and his staff have also been the victims of grievous attacks. In one of the most serious incidents, a thief pulled a needle on his son and tried to stab him with it. Luckily, he managed to get away from the attacker.

He said a trend of customers “pretending to steal” has emerged in Irish shops, where they put stuff in their pockets, then slip it out and put it back on the shelves.

“They want to be accused of theft. It seems to be the newest racket,” he added.

He said that “professional slippers and trippers” are now going down the defamation route.

They start shouting and roaring, “you’re after accusing me of stealing”, and a few days later they send in a solicitor’s letter claiming that they have been defamed, explained Mr Gleeson.

“To combat this behaviour, we put in sound on the cameras at the till and that has eliminated a lot of that kind of behaviour.”

According to figures presented to the retail sector by gardaí at a recent meeting of the National Garda Retail Theft Forum, reported theft from shops increased by 41% last year.

This increase is primarily due to increased theft from supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations with 53% of incidents involving the theft of food and groceries.

Ms Buckley said: “They recently showed us the figures they have for 2022. And they show a significant increase in all types of retail crime, up over 40%.

“And they say the reports of crime in May 2022, were up higher than any other time in the past 15 years. So, this is a significant issue right across the retail sector.”

Tara Buckley say the figures show a significant increase in retail crime

These trends are also evident across the sector in the larger supermarket chains.

In a statement issued to Prime Time, Tesco said: “Every day our colleagues, along with other retail workers, face abuse and threats of violence from a small number of customers, simply for doing their jobs, which is unacceptable behaviour.”

Recent research from the Circle K forecourt and convenience store group found that 75% of the company’s retail employees have experienced some form of abuse from customers.

Elaine Brennan, an area manager for Circle K in Dublin, said while the vast majority of the 1.2 million customers served in the company’s 410 stores each week do not misbehave, the level of harassment towards retail workers has noticeably increased.

She said: “I’ve seen a big change over the last couple of years. We’ve been through a global pandemic, the war, housing crisis, the cost-of-living crisis. [That’s] a lot of pressure on people and a lot of stress. So, people’s behaviour will change.”

“I have witnessed staff members being verbally abused, racially abused and physically abused.

“A small portion of our business will be 24/7 and at later stages of the night we get people in intoxicated. This would bring on aggressive behaviour, which leads to foul language, shouting and, unfortunately, sometimes they will put their hands on our colleagues.”

Elaine Brennan says harassment levels have increased

She said physical assaults are rare, but “any sort of abuse is completely unacceptable”.

Sisters Sheila and Catherine Clarke said it is getting harder to provide a good working environment for their 14 staff. The Clarkes said groups of teenagers regularly cause trouble in their store.

“They come in in such numbers that you can’t monitor all of them. They disregard any direction that they’re given and just do what they like. They get verbally abusive.”

“During Covid, it was a free-for-all because they were very good at wearing their masks. They’d have their masks on coming across the street because they knew they were less likely to be identified,” Sheila said.

“One of them would be up at the counter and then four more of them would be going around the shop taking whatever they wanted.”

She added that shoplifting is a growing problem with retailers left to foot the bill for goods stolen.

Catherine Clarke is concerned there are not enough repercussions for young offenders involved in retail crime.

She said: “I heard the word ‘feral’ used and I have to say it does encapsulate their attitude, because they are not bound or feel that they’re not bound by social norms. There are no repercussions for them, so I don’t feel like they have to comply at all.”

Barrister Sarah Jane Judge said: “I think the term feral youth – while I really do disagree with it – is exactly how a lot of people feel.”

She believes more gardaí are needed to tackle retail crime and added: “I think that it’s very easy to lay blame at the door of the gardaí.

“So, let’s get more boots on the ground. That’s the first thing. Let’s give the gardaí the resources that they need to do their very difficult job.”

Sarah Jane Judge believes more gardaí are needed to tackle retail crime

RGDATA’s survey found 58% of retailers were satisfied with the garda response to criminal activity in their shops. But many of them do take issue with the judicial system.

Ms Buckley said: “The reality is our members are far more frustrated with the court system, the leniency, the lack of custodial sentences and the issues around multiple serial offenders getting a rap on the knuckles and back in the shop the next week, laughing in the face of the staff and the owners.”

Ms Judge acknowledged there are delays with long court lists, but said it takes time to do adequate criminal investigations.

Some retailers have expressed their frustration with the prison system too, claiming that serial offenders should serve custodial sentences for offences, such as shoplifting.

Ms Judge questioned if prisoners get rehabilitated in overcrowded prisons. “Are they really going to come out looking at their own offending behaviour and reflecting on that and reflecting as to the way that they can address that? I’m not sure.”

The Convenience Stores and Newsagents Association (CSNA) has also expressed its concern over the increased violence and vile racist abuse directed at retailers.

Vincent Jennings, CEO of the CSNA, called for “An Garda Síochána to actively pursue anti-social behaviour or ASBOs as one part of a solution to a problem that needs urgent attention.”

“One of the real problems we have is that feral youths seem to be running around with impunity and ASBOS have been proven in other jurisdictions to have been very effective,” he told Prime Time.

Meanwhile, those dealing with the problem of harassment on a daily basis have had to take their own steps to protect their staff.

Sheila Clarke said: “It can be very intimidating. And we do have a large number of girls on staff. I actually had to drop the requirement to wear name badges.”

They were receiving unwanted attention online and “it was becoming a huge problem for them. So, it has changed the environment. Certainly, as a female in retail, you’re so much more aware, because I think you’re even more vulnerable”.

Like many retailers all over the country, the Clarkes are worried about where the current wave of anti-social behaviour and petty crime will end.

Watch reporter Conor McMorrow and producer Samantha Bourke’s report ‘Retail Torment’ on Prime Time tonight 9.35pm on RTÉ One and the RTÉ Player.

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