Contributoria

Article Women & Money

Gambling on safety - tales from behind the counter

All over the UK staff working in betting shops face threats, violence, robbery and a callous disregard for basic safety in the workplace. Harry Vale wonders why.

I wrote in 2014 about working in a bookies and said the reason I was leaving was that I was afraid that eventually another colleague would be assaulted or possibly murdered because of poor security and a general lack of care from the gambling industry. I didn’t want to be proved right.

In June 2015, a woman was closing up a Ladbrokes in the East Midlands. She was working on her own. She was subjected to a serious sexual assault and ended up in hospital. The two men were quickly apprehended and charged with attempted murder, assault by penetration and robbery.

It’s baffling to me that something like this could happen after the murder of Andrew Iacovou in 2013. The company was blasted (although not enough in my opinion) for poor safety procedures during this incident. Andrew was working on his own; his attempt to contact security failed and he lay behind the counter, dying, while customers continued to play on the machines. It was only because of a customer trying to collect some money that he was discovered at all.

In the wake of this, Ladbrokes sent some representatives to Westminster to meet Tom Brake, a Liberal Democrat MP. In this meeting, Ian Smyth, Chris Cerroni and Ciaran O’Brien pledged to introduce new safety features, including a system where security is contacted if a till is left unattended for 45 minutes and a speaker system that could be used by central security to talk to staff and customers on the shop floor.

I spoke to several people at Ladbrokes who claim not to have heard of the former system. From cashiers to area managers, they claim it doesn’t exist. O’Brien assured me that it does exist and I don’t really have any reason to doubt him. It would be a relatively quick, cheap and easy feature to implement and if there’s anything that Ladbrokes likes, it’s quick, cheap and easy.

O’Brien told me that staff would now all be carrying personal panic alarms, but they’re not all carrying them. I visited various shops in Birmingham city centre and only one had them, although everyone knew of them.

The speaker system, which again, I have to point out, was promised, pledged to Tom Brake MP in Westminster, is non-existent. I pressed O’Brien on this, asking him why it hadn’t been introduced, but was told “we said we would look at a number of things”. There’s a difference between “looking at a number of things” and pledging, to an MP, that you’d introduce something.

Ladbrokes will obviously be balancing cost over a staff member’s safety; this is obvious from their use of single-manning. It’s no surprise that a system that would cost possibly hundreds of thousands of pounds would be of no interest to them. They do like to spend money in other areas, though.

Project 50

A year or so into my career at Ladbrokes, someone had a brainwave and came up with the Project 50 (later 250, the number, I presume, indicating the amount of shops that were a part of the scheme). Ladbrokes won’t pay for an upgraded speaker system, one that is in use at Betfred to great effect from the managers and cashiers I’ve spoken to, but they did give each shop a budget to spend on buttering machine customers up. Staff were instructed to target various FOBT customers, known for their high spending, and buy them food and drink. A diary would be kept, with descriptions of the customers and a list of their favourite snacks. We were to go out to Greggs, McDonald’s, wherever they wanted, and spend shop money to keep them glued to the machine.

I thought this was an awful idea, especially as my main shop was in an area that was heavily populated by the homeless, and leaving trays of food around was basically asking for hassle (when I later asked if I could take a chocolate bar and a cup of tea to a homeless woman who constantly hung around the shop, I was looked at like I’d just spat in my manager’s face). The area manager would visit the shop occasionally, to see how Project 50 was doing, to make sure we were coming up with schemes to keep the customers fed and at the machines.

Fish and chips Friday was an example in the guide book and my manager was really annoyed we weren’t trying it.

“Why aren’t you buying fish and chips?” he asked, like I was genuinely an idiot trying to sabotage his business.

“Because it’ll stink the shop out and attract people you don’t want to be attracting.”

Again, this was unacceptable, and we were pressured into keeping the diary up to date daily. Eventually we just started faking it. No one was comfortable spending money, money our shop couldn’t afford, to keep customers in the shop. Some staff members would just fill it out, take money out of the till and buy themselves food. This is the same company that refused to provide us with an air conditioning unit, even when temperatures in the shop reached 33C and higher. Unlimited fish budget, though.

The project was eventually scrapped, due to Ladbrokes having no money and presumably someone high up found out about it and lost their mind. Why are Ladbrokes spending money on this crap instead of upgrading security? I can’t say with 100% certainty that the woman in the East Midlands would’ve been alright if she’d had a personal alarm and a system where central security could talk to the shop floor. I can imagine a scenario where she presses that alarm, where security’s voice comes bellowing out of the speakers like the voice of God and scares off the scum who attacked her.

You can never have enough security. Eventually, O’Brien stopped replying to me, mostly because I was just asking the same question over and over - why aren’t you introducing the thing you pledged to introduce? He’s leaving Ladbrokes soon for a similar role at William Hill.

I once had a customer grab my shirt and say he wanted to rub his head between my breasts. When I complained to my manager he said the guy was a profitable customer.

Ladbrokes do, at least, seem to have fitted most, if not all of their shops, with a maglock system: a magnet that keeps the door closed and controlled by a button by the till. William Hill has other ideas, though. It doesn’t seem to think they’re an essential tool. A manager at William Hill leaked some minutes of a security meeting to me. In the meeting, a lack of maglocks in seven local shops was brought up. William Hill replied: “Risk assessments are completed on all shops, maglocks support the controlling of anti-social behaviour, not necessarily reduce the the risk of robberies. [Security staff] will decide whether a shop needs a maglock fitted or not.”

Here’s a handy guide to see whether a shop needs a maglock fitted or not.

Q) Does your shop have a maglock fitted?

If the answer is no, you need a maglock. If the answer is yes, well done. A maglock costs around £20-45 and can be installed fairly cheaply/easily. Why isn’t William Hill making them mandatory? The company didn’t reply to my questions, nor did Betfred reply to my questions about the security speakers, and Ladbrokes hasn’t replied to me for ages.

Frightened staff

Staff are terrified at the moment. You only need to read the stories, usually from women working on their own, online about people being scared to go to work. Some are working four nights in a row on their own, others are shamed by staff when they ask for help.

“I posted a message online about Andrew, not even mentioning the company or a specific incident, and I got a call from a senior security officer who was very aggressive and threatening, telling me to take it down immediately or there would be consequences.”

The same woman told me a story about a customer who almost sexually assaulted her: “I once had a customer grab my shirt and say he wanted to rub his head between my breasts. When I complained to my manager he said the guy was a profitable customer and I should try and develop a sense of humour for ‘banter’.”

Another woman tells me of a time the shop was robbed three times in a week, including having the windows smashed in with bricks: “We couldn’t get any more staff in, so I had to work on my own. It was terrifying and I didn’t want to go on the shop floor, but I was told I had to, as it was ‘part of the job’. I asked why we couldn’t just shut the shop if we were understaffed and was told under no circumstances was this an option. I’ve left the group now.”

There seems to be a perverse attitude to safety among some managers. A cashier who worked in a particularly rough area was routinely mocked by staff and management because he would call security all the time. The policy, it was said, was that a staff couldn’t single-man if security received X amount of calls. Rightly or wrongly, this cashier felt like he had to exploit a safety loophole in order to feel safe at work. He was later assaulted by customers, spat at, had chairs and tables thrown at him, and left the group.

During my time at Ladbrokes, I was mostly fine. I was spat at a few times, but it was mostly verbal abuse. I didn’t have a high tolerance for it, which is why I left, but some of my colleagues seemed like superheroes compared to me. One guy, working in a shop with no bandit screens (perspex screens that stop customers from getting into the till area), had his nose broken trying to stop a robbery.

A former security officer at Ladbrokes contacted me on Facebook. He told me, confirming what I’d been told previously, that a shop without bandit screens will only get them if there’s a serious robbery. It’s cheaper that way. Cost over safety.

Threats of rape and murder

I understand that Ladbrokes and the other bookies are a business and have to make money. I understand that even if they had all these security systems, bad things are still going to happen. Desperate people are still going to rob shops. However, I think there should be a basic duty of care, a basic desire to make sure staff are happy and feel safe at work. A district manager visited our shop once, a shop that regularly reached temperatures of 33C or higher. It was a hell hole, with insane humidity, heat so bad that customers would turn and leave as soon as they entered. During the visit, I asked the guy if he could wrangle some air con, as we were having trouble trying to get one. He flat out refused to believe me about the temperatures and dismissed it as a non-issue.

Shops that regularly have trouble have massive open counters. Some of these shops have had incidents where female cashiers have been threatened with rape or murder. Chairs, tables and various other items have been flung through the air at cashiers behind the till. Instead of boosting security, the shop is made even more unsafe, with cashiers walking around the shop floor with iPads.

When a customer let loose a barrage of abuse at me and a colleague, I asked if they would now be banned from all the shops. I was told “probably”, and then had him walk into another shop I was working in a few weeks later. I expressed disbelief that he could come in, but was told that as long as he didn’t cause trouble in here, I’d just have to deal with it.

Robberies take place early in the morning or late at night, when the shop has the most money and only one staff member, often a woman.

A year later, a customer who was decent to me, but had a massive gambling problem, was only banned from the city centre after about a dozen incidents. He put a lot of money in the machines, so no one wanted to ban him. He would spit at the machines, slam his fists into them. He’d throw chairs, spit, insult and threaten the customers and staff, but it took an age before Ladbrokes would finally get rid of him. Why? Because he was putting money in the machines.

It is my personal belief that Andrew Iacovou would still be alive if he’d had a member of staff with him. I can’t prove this, it can never be proved, but I think Shafique Ahmad Aarij doesn’t have the nerve to do what he did if there’s another staff member around. Go read a random story about a shop being robbed and a pattern soon emerges. The robberies take place early in the morning or late at night, when the shop has the most money, and when the shop only has one staff member. It’s often a woman working on her own. It doesn’t take a genius to see why these shops are being targeted. At the very least, another staff member with Andrew could’ve alerted security quicker. Could’ve helped fight off his attacker.

I also believe that had there been the security Ladbrokes had pledged to introduce, we wouldn’t have had incidents like the one in the East Midlands.

“But lots of other businesses single-man”, the bookies might reply. And it’s true, they do. But how many pubs or cafes or clothes shops do you hear about being robbed at gunpoint? How many cafes carrying thousands of pounds stay open until 10pm, leaving staff alone and without basics like a magnetic lock to protect them?

Expendable

A maglock, a bandit screen, another member of staff, no one should have to work without these. Even ignoring the safety aspects, it’s just better to have someone working with you. You’re happier, you’re saner, and you do a better job. I know I worked better with other people and I know that staff all across the country are working on their own, terrified and not willing to speak up because they’re so expendable. Their every word online is being watched, they don’t want to complain because they know the companies will replace them in a heartbeat.

“A colleague ranted online about the safety in the shop, and her district manager came into her shop the next day with a print-off of all her comments.”

If they have the time to do this, if they have the money to waste on gluing customers to machines, they have the time and money to buy a £40 maglock.

Not long after the appalling incident in the East Midlands, a colleague of the woman who was attacked sends me a message. The shop, I’m told, shouldn’t have been single-manning because they’d been robbed in March. Not only that, but a cashier had been assaulted during the robbery.

If single-manning is so safe, why does Ladbrokes double up on staff after an incident like this? Why was the woman working on her own in a shop that was robbed not long before and where a cashier was assaulted? Why won’t William Hill install maglocks in all its shops?

“People in my current area are kicking up a fuss about working alone and are being told to either move to a different marketplace to single-man with a bandit screen (no shops here have them), or drop down to being a cashier [demoting them, essentially; lower pay, fewer hours].”

Why is there this abhorrent attitude to staff who just want to do their job in a safe environment?

Graham Jones, the Labour MP for Hyndburn, is trying to do something. A few other MPs, including Tom Brake, are trying to do something. Graham said: “I intend to write to bookies and write to the major trade unions and ask what they are doing to tackle this issue. The next step will be to raise the issue in parliament again.”

Every day, I come to work scared, and I leave work scared.

Tom Brake said: “I have contacted Ladbrokes again seeking an update on the actions they have taken. I stressed the suggestion of contact by speaker from a central control point in the event of an incident where staff cannot use the phones.”

It’s hard not to be cynical about it all, though. No one really cares. There’s an attitude, even among some bookies, that if you don’t like it you should just quit. Stop whingeing. Single-manning is actually great fun! Well, some people can’t just quit. Some people are whingeing because they’re being abused on a daily basis.

“This job used to be great. It used to be about community, it used to be fun, but since the machines have come in, since the good customers have been driven away and since single-manning was introduced, it’s just been a nightmare. I’m too old to train myself up for another job. This is all I know. My manager told me that if it’s that bad, I should just quit, but I can’t quit. I can’t afford it, and I’m scared. Every day, I come to work scared, and I leave work scared. That shouldn’t be my job or my life.”

Ladbrokes hasn’t responded about the claims about the shop in the East Midlands being robbed before the incident in June. It’s not responded to claims about new security features, beyond telling me that it was merely something it was looking into. Betfred has not responded about its speaker security system. William Hill has not responded about its lack of maglocks.

I’m told the woman from the East Midlands is doing better. She and staff across the country deserve better.

Certain details (such as locations of shops) have been very mildly altered to protect identities, as various members of security do monitor things online.

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