Shop workers are being punched, spat at, and verbally abused to such an extent that Perspex barriers erected during the covid pandemic have been left up to protect staff from violence, retailers have said.
Willie O’Brien, owner of Spar on MacCurtain St in Cork city, said he has been physically and verbally assaulted when he has tried to apprehend people stealing from his shop.
On one occasion he was hit so hard in the chest that he was winded and sank to the floor. “Theft has always been there," he said. "When I came here first it was rampant in the shop.
“We used to put photos of people caught shoplifting up and it absolutely cleared them.
"But it's back again. And it’s not just in Cork, it’s across the country."
Theft from shops rose 78% in the first two months of this year compared to the same period last year in Cork city.
The issue was flagged as a considerable problem by elected representatives at Monday's Cork City Joint Policing Committee, with some shop owners fearing for their own and their staff’s safety due to theft and intimidation, they said.
Gardaí are actively trying to tackle this problem, said Chief Superintendent Tom Myers. Alcohol is a significant factor in many thefts and gardaí are targeting "prolific offenders", he said.
Mr O'Brien believes that addiction is fuelling theft and antisocial behaviour in Cork and across the country.
“People have no respect for themselves so they have no respect for anyone else either," he said. "People can be like animals, really feral.
"The language of the street is aggressive and loud and violent. Whoever is biggest and loudest takes what they want.
He punched the Perspex so hard it detached from the ceiling.
Antisocial behaviour, aggression, and shoplifting have increased so much that for the first time in 21 years Mr O'Brien has had to hire a security guard at night, at a significant cost to the business.
“They’re getting this abuse in hospitals, in bars, in restaurants. Gardaí get abuse. It’s everywhere. This animalistic behaviour, this unwarranted anger and aggression," he said.
“Have we reached a point in society where we have to protest to establish our right to work in safety?
Cork Business Association president Kevin Herlihy, who also co-owns the Herlihy Centra Group which runs seven Centra stores in Cork, said that shoplifting and antisocial behaviour is now a big problem facing shop workers.
“We are seeing a lot of antisocial behaviour. A lot of retailers are experiencing it. There are a lot of teenage gangs causing trouble, shoplifting, and stealing. Drug addiction and other antisocial behaviour are not helping either," Mr O'Herlihy said.
"There’s a lack of gardaí on the streets; there have been a lot of retirements and gardaí leaving the force early and not being replaced," he said.
To tackle the problem, he has hired on-site security which has resulted in less theft and antisocial behaviour but it costs.
Since the covid pandemic, bad behaviour has escalated to such a degree that he has started bringing security staff in during the day and he provides a security training course to staff.
"The main priority of security guards is protection of the staff before protection of the stock," he said.