Supermarket staff suffer customer ‘bag rage’ as Australia imposes plastic ban

Dozens of supermarket staff suffer abuse as two major Australian grocery chains struggled to impose a ban on single-use plastic bags

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 July, 2018, 3:01pm

Australia’s biggest supermarket chains are scrambling to combat “bag rage” as frustrated shoppers vent their anger over the removal of single-use plastic bags.

One man put his hands around a supermarket worker’s throat, the West Australian newspaper reported, while grocery stores are putting on more staff to help customers get used to the change.

The removal of single-use plastics is part of a national push to reduce waste.

As of July 1, major retailers in all but two Australian states will be fined if they supply single-use plastic bags.

National supermarket chain Coles, owned by Wesfarmers, on Sunday removed single-use plastic bags from its stores, soon after rival Woolworths banned the bags on June 20.

Consumer complaints forced Woolworths to backflip on charging customers 15 Australian cents (11 US cents) for a reusable plastic bag, with the retailer now offering them free until July 8.

“They just want a little extra help from us to get through the transition,” said Claire Peters, Woolworths managing director, in an emailed statement.

After seeing the backlash at its rival, Coles said it would open every checkout lane on Sunday to reduce queue lengths as staff explain the changes to customers.

The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association, the union that represents Australian shop assistants, has launched a public awareness campaign on the issue.

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The union conducted a survey earlier last week and of 132 members who responded, 57 said they suffered abuse due to the plastic bag ban.

It included a worker being assaulted by a customer after being told there were no free plastic bags at a store in Western Australia state.

“A male customer in the self-serve area swore loudly at a female worker,” the union’s assistant secretary Ben Harris said on Monday.

“She provided him with some complimentary bags and apologised.”

The customer then made a mistake by scanning an item twice, but when the same worker came to help him, “he walked up behind her and put his hands around her throat”, Harris said.

Other customers have thrown grocery items on the floor and stormed off after swearing at staff.

“While we understand that some customers may be frustrated by this change, there is absolutely no excuse for abusive or violent behaviour towards retail staff,” Gerard Dwyer, the union’s national secretary said.

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He said the ban could also pose a health risk, with people bringing filthy used bags to pack their shopping without considering hygiene issues.

“In some cases, customers have attempted to use bags which contained vomit, dirty nappies or rat faeces. This is obviously unacceptable and presents a serious health risk to retail staff,” he said.

According to US journal Science, 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the Earth’s oceans and seas each year, with toxic particles ingested by fish and, through the food chain, by humans.

The UN wants to eliminate single-use plastic by 2022 and says more than 60 countries have so far taken steps to ban or reduce plastic consumption.

In Hong Kong, there is HK$0.50 plastic bag levy.

Reuters, Agence France-Presse

Reader response: Australia is right to ban plastic bags: angry shoppers are just selfish