Jenny Leong speaks on assaults on retail workers

On behalf of The Greens, I speak in debate on the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Assaults on Retail Workers) Bill 2023. No person should ever be subjected to violence, assault or mistreatment in their workplace. There is absolutely no place for that kind of aggression or behaviour. That said, The Greens do not support the approach in this bill. We believe very strongly that the way to deal with violence against workers, including retail workers, and workplace safety is to address the fundamental and underlying issues that put people at risk, rather than simply waving around a piece of legislation in the Chamber in an effort to look strong and tough on law and order and hoping the issues will go away.

The bill is an example of punitive lawmaking. Rather than making an evidence-based, meaningful change to address the occupational violence experienced by retail workers, it is a tick-and-flick exercise. We are simply changing the penalties. The Crimes Legislation Amendment (Assaults on Retail Workers) Bill 2023 appears to take action, but it will have no material impact, benefit or change for retail workers on the shop floor now. It will make everyone in this place feel like they have done a good job, but the reality that retail workers face day to day at work will not change as a result. For that reason, The Greens do not support the increased penalties introduced by the Labor Government's bill. We did not support the increased penalties introduced by the former Liberal‑Nationals Government for the same reason.

The bill is yet another example of an attempt to address societal problems through a law‑and‑order approach. The bill seeks to model the laws that provide higher penalties for assaults against frontline health and emergency services workers and extend them to retail workers. Again, we do not condone the idea of violence or any workers being subject to violence. The Government thinks passing a law that slightly increases penalties will somehow deter people who often have complex mental health, drug and alcohol or other serious trauma‑related personal issues that cause them to assault retail workers or act with frustration, violence or aggression towards them. But that is not the answer.

The bill will not make retail workers any safer. It is part of a worrying trend of extending aggravated sentences and carving out specific industries of workers as being more important, or more essential, than others. It continues the previous Government's tough‑on‑crime and law‑and‑order approach and applies it to work health and safety, which we know does not work. It does not make any real changes to address the workplace conditions and safety of retail employees. We know that harsher sentences will not decrease the rates of assault or abuse or provide greater protections for retail workers. We know that many of those who engage in that kind of aggression, violent behaviour or assaults are already disproportionately marginalised people in our community who struggle with language barriers, mental health issues and social disenfranchisement.

Those people are not—shock‑horror!—following the details of this debate nor, I am guessing, would they have any idea of the penalties in the Crimes Act that would allow them to even know that we have increased or doubled or changed the penalties in any way. They engage in this kind of abuse, these kinds of tirades because they, themselves, require assistance and help. They require drug and alcohol support. They require mental health support. They require a system that does not traumatise them but supports them. This piece of legislation is purported to provide protection to retail workers, but the reason for this harm is linked to much bigger societal problems than we will solve with the Crimes Act.

The Government can do many things to ensure that retail workers—in fact, all workers—are safe at work. The bill will not give retail workers more breaks, more pay or more protections. It will not reduce the casualisation of the workforce. It will not empower them to speak up to their bosses when they do not feel safe at work. Because they are in a casual work environment, they are not rostered onto shifts if they complain to their bosses. The insecure nature of retail work creates a power imbalance. The bosses and the big corporations profit from exploiting workers within those retail spaces. I note that some of those big associations are supportive of this legislation. It is not surprising that big business stands in support of legislation that allegedly protects the rights of workers. Every employer owes a duty of care to their workers, and the duty of care to retail workers could be massively increased. But we see those corporations standing hand-in-hand with the Minister as he announces these changes and these reforms, looking like they are caring about the safety of their workers, and yet at the same time so much could be done in those workplaces to make workers safer.

Workplaces can be made safer by ensuring that there are safe break rooms, abuse and harassment training, and adequate supervision, and that junior staff members are not left on the floors of retail shops without senior staff members to assist them. Occupational violence policies in the workplace must be strengthened. The Greens firmly believe in workers' rights to organise and to strike to ensure safety. Robust, democratic unions that reflect the needs and the wishes of the workers they represent are absolutely critical in that. Many retail workers have insecure and irregular work. Some of the most underpaid and precarious workers in our State are women, young people, recent migrants and disabled people. It is not a surprise that those people are the ones who suffer the most violence and aggression and abuse in retail work, because they are the people who experience the most violent and aggressive assaults in society in general.

Whether those people are retail workers or not, so often they are the ones providing the most critical services to our community in highly contested and sometimes challenging spaces, which was never clearer than during the pandemic. The bill is a reaction to something that occurred during the pandemic, particularly when there were large-scale attacks on Asian Australians, on Chinese Australian community workers, and on people in retail, hospitality and other spaces. We need to recognise that part of that aggression and violence was because of the requirement to demand that people sign in with QR codes, wear masks and stand socially distanced. All of a sudden retail workers, hospitality workers and others working in frontline services were required to play some kind of policing role to manage this. Understandably, in the highly stressful, massively unknown environment of a pandemic, people were reacting unacceptably. But we cannot then say that the solution is to police our way out of it, to put more crimes in the Crimes Act, to strengthen penalties and fail to look at the underlying causes.

As the member for Tweed pointed out, this bill does not capture crimes against hospitality workers. It is important for us to think about this because in carving out exceptions, where assaults on retail workers get tougher penalties, pretty much what we are saying to the 16-year-old hospitality worker is "Actually, the assault on you is less important. It is less bad." We are saying to the food delivery driver, "Actually, that abuse you copped, that assault on you is not as bad as the assault on the person who works in the bottle shop." We are saying to the librarian or the parking inspector or the person just catching a bus or a train in our city, "The assault on you is not as bad as an assault on someone else because we value the role that this person plays in society more than what you offer to society."

We create segmentation by setting up a model that, to serve our needs, puts on a higher platform the need to protect certain types of people. That is not something The Greens can support. It is certainly not something I want to see put into our laws. We cannot support creating a hierarchy in which assaults on people who do certain types of productive capitalistic work to produce profits for certain retail outlets are more important than assaults or aggression on other people. While The Greens hope that every retail worker is safe in their workplace, we do not support the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Assaults on Retail Workers) Bill 2023.

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