New laws to crack down on customers abusing workers

Customers who assault or abuse retail, hospitality and transport staff in Victoria are set to face harsher penalties under law changes.

In a speech to the Victorian Labor State Conference on Saturday, Premier Jacinta Allan announced her government would introduce legislation to crack down on attacks on consumer-facing workers.

Ms Allan spoke of her own experience, working at local supermarkets from 1989 while at school and later university.

Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan
Jacinta Allan recounted her own experience of abuse while working at a supermarket. (Con Chronis/AAP PHOTOS)

She spent most of her time working behind the cigarette counter and said dealing with customers became part of her everyday life.

"Most of the time it was fine," Ms Allan said.

"But every so often you would get a customer barking demands, willing to shout at you, or call you names, particularly if you got the wrong pack of red, blue or green Winfields.

"That aggression and violence towards customer-facing workers, we know, has only gotten worse."

Woolworths assistant customer service manager Shefali Batta recalled being confronted by a knife-wielding woman who was trying to steal groceries.

She suffered a graze to her stomach when the shoplifter attempted to stab her and a security guard.

"I felt like I'm dead at that moment," Ms Batta told reporters.

"I was shocked ... terrified and traumatised."

A survey of 4600 members from the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association found 87 per cent of workers faced abuse in the past year, up 56 per cent from 2021.

SDA state secretary Michael Donovan noted the growth occurred during the COVID pandemic and said his members had been pushed, punched and spat on.

"There are penalties when this happens in the street," he said.

"But for special groups of workers, such as emergency workers, the penalties are higher ... and we want to see our workers recognised in the same fashion."

The Victorian government will convene a worker protection consultation group to oversee development of the laws, which it intends to introduce to parliament by the end of 2025.

New penalties or offences for those who abuse workers will be considered by the group, along with protections from stalking, harassment and intimidation.

Australian Retailers Association chief executive Paul Zahra said the reforms would align Victoria with South Australia, NSW, Northern Territory and Western Australia in stepping up laws in response to the growing customer aggression and assaults.

"We're mindful that the majority of customers are respectful and do the right thing, but the small minority are making retail a dangerous environment to work in," Mr Zahra said in a statement.

In a separate announcement, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Victoria would become the host jurisdiction for a national labour hire licensing scheme.