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Retailers have a 'fundamental duty' to protect staff from abuse, Michael Wood says following Countdown attack

As Monday’s stabbing at a Dunedin Countdown shines a light on the abuse faced in the retail sector, Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood are reminding businesses to better protect their staff. 

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The Workplace Relations and Safety Minister says businesses need to mitigate issues to protect employees from harm.

Speaking with Breakfast, Wood said Countdown General Manager Kiri Hannifin had reached out to him a month ago to discuss the heightening abuse employees are facing.

The pair had been working together to address the issue before the attack which left four injured. 

Reflecting on his own experience working in retail, Wood said that retail employees can be made to feel “less than human” by consumers. 

“There’s something in the psychology that sometimes means people feel that they think they have a right to boss that person around, to bully them and put unreasonable expectations on them.”

Wood says in order to address the growing amounts of physical and psychological abuse endured by workers, he’s wanting to bring the sector together to discuss how they can better keep people safe. 

He said that the stresses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to have heightened stresses for customers in their own lives, who may, in turn, have lashed out as workers as a result. 

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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

“We just need to remember that message, we got through Covid by being kind to each other. By treating each other with respect and care.” 

Drug use, particularly methamphetamine, has also created concern for businesses in the sector as people act out aggressively and sometimes violently at staff.

“Some challenges we face with ‘P’ in our communities means that can mean that we have people in these environments acting out with aggression and unpredictability,” he told Breakfast.   

Having businesses putting their employees’ safety first is their “fundamental duty”, outlined as part of the country’s health and safety laws according to Wood. 

He says that employers must be able to identify the issues at hand and make sure that their business has a structure in place to proactively support their staff, something which he says WorkSafe must enforce.

“The challenge is then on how that operation lies in an environment like Countdown where there might literally be thousands of people coming in and out of a store every day," Wood said.

"What are the processes, the mitigation, we put in place to make sure those staff are protected. It is how you operationalise the most challenging in these environments.”

Not only must WorkSafe hold businesses accountable but also work alongside employers and provide the support they need to make sure they are following those processes, he said.