Covid pandemic leaves permanent scar on retail workers

More than half of Australian retail workers experienced customer abuse during the pandemic, while nearly half felt their job became more insecure, landmark new research by the University of Sydney and the ANU finds.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a massive toll on Australian retail workers, with more than one-in-two workers experiencing increased hostility and abuse from customers, according to a new report from the University of Sydney and The Australian National University (ANU).

The report is one of the first to look at the impacts of the pandemic on essential workers thrown into the frontline with little preparation and a high risk of exposure to the virus.

Pandemic Pressures: Job Security and Customer Relations for Retail Workers highlights the challenges faced by retail, fast-food and distribution workers during the pandemic and recent lockdowns, as well as COVID-19’s impact on job security and worker-customer relations.

“The retail sector has been profoundly, yet unevenly, impacted by the COVID-19 crisis,” said report co-author, Professor Rae Cooper from the University of Sydney Business School.

“Workers feel disrespected and report that they have been on the receiving end of disrespectful treatment, threatening behaviour and bad manners from retail customers. This was especially the case for women, young workers and culturally and linguistically diverse workers.

“As we come into the Christmas season it is worth a reminder that the mostly young, often low paid and highly feminised retail workforce should not bear the brunt of customer abuse. Managers and employers should be taking a zero tolerance approach to poor treatment of their staff.”

Fifty-six percent of retail workers experienced a notable increase in customer abuse during the pandemic, yet “the experiences and concerns of these workers have tended to be overlooked or underestimated by the media and governments, relative to other frontline workers,” said report co-author, Professor Ariadne Vromen from the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy.

Job insecurity another key issue for sector

Professor Cooper said the retail sector can learn some valuable lessons from the pandemic well beyond the battles in supermarket aisles for toilet paper and other essential items.

“Due to pandemic-related job losses, many workers in the sector are feeling much more insecure than they were before the pandemic and are seeking better security of employment. We need to make jobs in this sector more secure and predictable as we move into recovery.”

The researchers note that despite initial job losses and reduced working hours in the sector, the pandemic has been highly lucrative for many areas in retail, with record sales in food, household and recreational goods, and a shift to online shopping. They further note that the pandemic precipitated a rapid adoption of new, contactless technologies, that promises to reshape the retail sector.

Surveying retail workers

The report is the result of a representative online survey of more than 1,100 retail, fast-food and distribution workers in September during the height of lockdowns in many parts of Australia. The team of researchers also conducted 30 interviews with senior stakeholders from across the industry.

Almost half (49 percent) of retail workers felt their job security had decreased as a result of the pandemic.

Those who were likely to feel more insecure during the pandemic were:

  • women (51 percent)
  • those under 30 (56 percent)
  • those from a non-English-speaking background (60 percent)
  • frontline (51 percent) and casual (55 percent) workers
  • those working in a locked-down region (53 percent).


The report is based on work by researchers from ANU and the University of Sydney Business School as part of the ARC Linkage Project Designing Gender Equality into the Future of Work, which is investigating how women and men understand and experience the changing nature of work and their hopes and fears for the future. The University of Sydney team is comprised of Professor Rae Cooper, Dr Meraiah Foley, and Dr Briony Lipton.

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