Fight grows in Europe to safeguard a secular Sabbath
Conscience trumps convenience in push to open Sunday shopping.
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Croatia had overturned bans on Sunday trading in 1994, but then slammed the door shut to Sunday shopping last month, when a new ban took effect. The change is seen as a concession to the Catholic Church. Major retailers have appealed, saying the change could lead to 7,000 jobs lost and score of store closures at a time when the Croatia can ill afford the blow.Skip to next paragraph
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Until recently, Sunday shopping also split Slovenia, which, unlike neighboring Poland and Hungary, didn't adopt a "classical capitalistic approach" after communism, says Stefan Skledar of the Institute of Macroeconomic Analysis and Development in Ljubljana. When the Slovenian parliament allowed Sunday shopping in the early 2000s, a war exploded between employers and trade unions that resulted in a compromise: Sunday trading is allowed, but its high labor cost restrains it. "Unions succeeded in preventing the overexploitation of workers," Mr. Skledar says.
Conscience over convenience?
Rising unemployment and economic instability have further dampened governments' ability to liberalize store hours, Skledar says. "In times of crisis, when people are suffering, solidarity is more important than in times of affluence....People need more protection, not less."
Earlier this month, church leaders called on the European Union Parliament to declare a work-free Sunday an "essential pillar" of Europe. The parliament is slated to vote on the issue in May.
"The current economic and financial crisis has made it even more evident that not every aspect of human life can be subject to the laws of the market," stated a declaration from representatives of the Protestant church in Germany, European Catholic bishops, and the Church of England. "In fact, consumerism is not a model either for a sustainable economy or for healthy human development."
Recent surveys have shown that most of the French support Sunday trading, but backers of the idea say Sundays will probably stay quiet for now, even if many stores openly flout the ban.
"Six months ago, it would have passed without the slightest problem," says Jean Michel Silberstein, of the National Council on Shopping Centers, which represents 700 shopping centers and 34,000 retailers throughout France and supports Sarkozy's liberalization plan. "But the financial crisis struck."
With the crisis comes social discontent and fear "born out of the perception that the government is doing everything it can to help businesses and banks, but nothing to help the people who suffer," Mr. Silberstein says, adding that the Sarkozy government is right to focus on appeasing unions rather than pushing through potentially explosive reform.
"When they feel they're being unfairly treated, the French take to the streets," he says, "And we know how social movements can degenerate. We have seen them degenerate in other countries."
In Greece, after the riots in Athens this past winter, shopkeepers asked that exceptions could be made to allow stores to stay open on Sundays to recoup the heavy losses incurred during demonstrations.
But trade unionists effectively vetoed the measure by physically preventing shoppers from entering stores, forcing large department stores to close temporarily.