Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021

For some growing up it is a rite of passage, for others it is a career they have always dreamed of, for yet others, it is the client facing part of a business they have built up. No matter the role, the service industry and, in particular, the retail industry is widely regarded as exceedingly demanding.

Those in some areas of the service industry have been defined as ‘key workers’ by the Scottish Government during the COVID-19 pandemic and as a result, the role retail workers play in society has been brought into sharp focus over the past 12 months. Around 44,000 people are employed in the convenience sector alone in Scotland. Unfortunately, that focus has highlighted that the instances of abuse towards service workers has spiralled north of a 450% increase in the last few years. 83% of convenience store workers report having been verbally abused whilst doing their job at some point, and on average 15 shop staff a day are assaulted in Scotland.

In response, the Scottish Government has sought to provide greater protection in law to retail workers, especially so where they are providing age restricted goods such as alcohol and tobacco. The new law makes it a specific, new criminal offence to:

  • Assault retail workers
  • Threaten or abuse them
  • Obstruct or hinder them.

If the offence was committed because the worker was applying an ‘age-restriction request’ to the transaction then this would count as an ‘aggravation’ to the new offence, attracting a more severe punishment.

On the face of it, this seems like a cause that any law-abiding citizen can get behind; there should be absolutely zero tolerance of any instances of abuse towards anyone doing their job. The creation of a new offence could act as a deterrent. However, is this just grandstanding by the Scottish Government at a time when retail workers are ‘today’s news’?

The law already provides for clear offences in relation to assaults on police officers (Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act [2012]) and other emergency workers (Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act [2005]). The introduction of retail workers to being protected by a specific piece of legislation has been warmly welcomed by unions representing retail workers citing the need for a new approach to tackle the perceived ineffectiveness of sanctions for attacks on workers in the retail industry. However, legislation is already in existence which protects retail workers namely, Section 38 of the Criminal Justice and Licencing (Scotland) Act [2010]. This legislation which already protects every citizen in Scotland against acts of violence towards their person. The maximum penalty under summary conviction for assault under Section 38 is 12 months imprisonment or a fine of £2,500 in the Justice of the Peace Court or £10,000 in the Sheriff Court.

The Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted goods and Services) Scotland Act [2021], received Royal Assent on 24th February 2021. It does not increase any of the punitive measures available to the court where the assault is against a retail worker during the course of their employment, despite this being widely discussed when the Act was making its way through Parliament.

Does this ‘duplication’ of legislation do much to protect those on the front line of the service industry? What has the government achieved other than introducing more legislation to a distinct class of workers? Moreover, the legislation does not cover other notable service industry members such as security workers who report a significant number of instances of abuse and assault on an regular basis to the police. Are the Scottish Government intent on covering each individual sector of employment in Scotland with their own legislation to match?

It is too early to state if this piece of legislation has significant ‘bite’ to be utilised as a tool to deter such appalling behaviour towards retail workers. Only time will tell if the Scottish Government’s legislation has given enhanced protection to retail workers and has the effect of deterring such attacks or whether the government should have kept the receipt for a refund…

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