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'Let's protect them' – Women, young service workers 'at risk' from abusive customers

A provision in law should be put in place to ensure the safety of front-facing workers amid an escalation of abuse, according to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.

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Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon and Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo joined Breakfast to discuss the escalation of abuse towards front-facing workers. Source: Breakfast

Four people were injured following a stabbing at a Countdown in Dunedin on Monday. Two of those injured were staff. 

It was followed by a story on Breakfast yesterday detailing how a Countdown worker had a basket of tins thrown at her by a racist customer. 

Today Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo and Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon spoke about the issue on Breakfast.

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Kalein Howard told Breakfast of the abuse she endures while doing her job. Source: Breakfast

“A lot of people say, ‘This is not New Zealand,' but it is some of us ... so obviously, we have a problem and we need to acknowledge that we have a problem and we actually need to find solutions to these problems,” Foon said.

“I’ve been hearing frontline [workers] - especially when people go to the hospital - you expect love and care and yet the people that are receiving treatment, they hurl abuse and that’s in all of the areas of retailing, front-facing staff.”

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Countdown worker recounts day racist customer hurled basket of tins at her - 'This shouldn’t be normalised'

Foon called for cameras to “take the action of those people and play them back to them when they are actually sober or in a better frame of mind because it does happen and “some people don’t actually realise, especially the people that are intoxicated or on drugs that are facing treatment”.

Sumeo said abuse "does seem to happen" in industries dominated by women and young people "so we have to think about how we value the work in those industries".

“The shoe is for sale, the bus ride is for sale - not the indignity - and it’s really, really important that we remember that.

“Going forward, I do believe our young people is very much at risk, women are very much at risk. They’re someone’s son, someone’s daughter, someone’s mum or auntie - let’s protect them.”

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The supermarket is now looking at new ways to protect workers. Source: 1 NEWS

She said while it was “great that the public stepped up” to protect the Countdown workers and customers during the Dunedin stabbing incident, businesses need to take a stronger stance to protect their staff.

“We need to send people who conduct themselves in this way that your threats will be taken seriously, you will be taken seriously and actually for businesses to say, ‘My staff are worth more than what I’m selling. We will not sell at any cost. We will not do business at any cost with anybody.’

“That is what will become part of their brand and that has to become the brand of New Zealand so we’ve got any issue and we need to address it - it’s called psychological harm and we need to have that recognised in law.”

Foon said while the escalation of abuse at service workers can’t be blamed on “everything on the last year or bit [amid the Covid-19 pandemic]," it "definitely has escalated with people trolling the internet,".

"They’re stuck in their homes for long periods of time and it does actually cause that psychological harm to them." 

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He said mental illness is also “quite a huge issue,” adding that practitioners are “overworked, they need more resources and I know that there are few resources being put out there”.

Foon said that the many surveys conducted by the Human Rights Commission on racism and abuse has found that it “has definitely more than doubled in the last year of Covid”.

“There is an alarming need for help out there and counsellors, we acknowledge their good work but they are overburdened by the workload.”

Sumeo said there is a “duty of care that is required of businesses, of all employers… so it doesn’t matter what business you’re in, whether you’re in the voluntary sector or the paid sector - you have a right to be safe in your environment”.

“Our businesses need to do all that they can to ensure that when there is harm done, there is so much that’s within the control of businesses.”

She called for a provisions in New Zealand law to allow workers to “recover from attacks, recover from ongoing abuse”.

“It requires recognition in our laws so that we can provide counselling and therapy to help our people pick themselves back up and have confidence they’ll be safe."