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NSW Strengthens Punishments for Abuse Against Retail Employees

In a world of instantaneity, it is no shock that physical, emotional, and verbal abuse is a familiar experience for the average Australian retail employee. Holly Mitchell outlines recent laws that have come into place in NSW aiming to protect retail workers. 


Content Warning: Mentions of abuse in the workplace.


Working in retail, hospitality, or any variation of customer service swiftly introduces a person to many forms of abuse. Whether it be emotional, verbal, or in some severe cases physical, it is recognised as a nationwide issue in Australia. The McKell Institute recently published research that revealed 85% of retail workers in NSW have either been abused or assaulted while doing their jobs [1].


It is an issue particularly faced by young employees (including us university students), who are being paid minimum wages and are expected to tolerate the ugly behaviours of certain customers with patience and grace.


To combat this issue, NSW have recently introduced The Crimes Legislation Amendment (Assaults on Retail Workers) Bill 2023, which will introduce three new offences into the Crimes Act of 1900 in an attempt to protect retail workers from physical attacks [2]. These reforms will see culprits who assault, harass, stalk, intimidate, or throw objects at a retail worker sentenced to a maximum of 4 years in prison, even if the employee does not sustain bodily injuries; if the employee is physically injured, the culprit will instead be sentenced to a maximum of 11 years in prison [3]. 


The current NSW Premier Chris Minns stated that these new reforms reflect the government’s commitment to the safety of retail employees in NSW [4]. It begs the question however, why are certain members of the public cruel to customer service employees? Beyond the obvious answers of having a sense of entitlement and impatience, this may be related to the expectation of processes being speedier due to online services. CEO of Retail Drinks (an advocacy association group for liquor retailers in Australia) Michael Waters described how an increase in customer aggression post-Covid occurred not only in-stores, but also with online order delivery drivers [5]. This expectation for instant service has evidently influenced the way in which customers treat retail employees, who they arguably see first as an extension of a corporation, then secondly as human. 


According to Professor Rae Cooper of the University of Sydney Business School, customer aggression towards retail employees may also stem from a gender bias. Arguing that the majority of retail workers are “young, female, and low-paid”, Cooper’s research found 63% of female retail employees claimed their interactions with customers had worsened, compared to 55% of male retail employees [6]. Additionally, Cooper claimed that the mentality of the customer always being right made retail employees “easy targets” for members of the public looking to pick a fight during Covid related stresses, as well as the current cost of living crisis [7].


Although this bill is a welcomed step in combatting physical attacks against retail employees, we are yet to witness its effectiveness. It is encouraging that the NSW government is taking steps to protect their customer service workers, and it is with hope that these reforms frighten customers into being kinder. Moving forward, it would be ideal to introduce penalties for the verbal abuse that occurs daily towards retail employees. Verbal abuse that unfortunately, does not seem likely to go away anytime soon. 





[1]  Schmidt, Nathan. “‘Unacceptable’: Plan to tackle retail worker assault revealed”, News.com.au, 21 Jun. 2023, https://www.news.com.au/finance/business/retail/unacceptable-plan-to-tackle-retail-worker-assault-revealed/news-story/cbba0ffe68083acb86b70abae4e68a9b 


[2]  NSW Government. “Assaults on retail workers to attract stronger penalties”, 21 Jun. 2023, https://www.nsw.gov.au/media-releases/penalties-assault-retail-workers 


[3] Ibid.


[4] Ibid. 


[5] Young, Andy. “Stronger protection for retail workers welcomed”, National Liquor News, 23 Jun. 2023, https://theshout.com.au/national-liquor-news/stronger-protection-for-retail-workers-welcomed/ 


[6] Bakan, Sezen. “Abuse by customers is at record levels, and retail workers aren’t buying it”, The New Daily, 17 Mar. 2023, https://thenewdaily.com.au/finance/2023/03/17/retail-staff-abuse-government/ 


[7] Ibid.


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