Monday, 10 February 2014

Thoughts on Sunday Trading

"Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay." (The International Declaration of Human Rights)

The First Sunday Law enacted by Emperor Constantine was given in March, 321 AD, and reads as follows:

"On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits; because it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain-sowing or for vine-planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost. (Given the 7th day of March, Crispus and Constantine being consuls each of them for the second time "(1)

This was as much a Pagan law as a Christian law, it was a celebration of the cult of Sol Invictus, a form of sun worship, and yet it laid the basis for thinking on Christian observance of Sunday as well. It shows common sense - those who are engaged in pursuits that require them to work, such as agriculture, are excused and may continue their pursuits.

That distinction, between work of necessity, and other work, is one which still underpins much Sunday trading laws. Of course, we have small retail outlets, restaurants and hotels, hospitals, police all included in those kinds of work, but the larger shop, especially the larger food stores, we can go without. The smaller store survives in more outlying areas and even close to larger stories precisely because it can supply the basic needs of the consumer.

But while pressure is being put for more retail outlets to open, no one is suggesting that banks, for instant, open on a Sunday for the convenience of consumers, or for that matter, Post Offices, or even Parish Halls, which shut inconveniently at 5, the same time most people leave work, and are closed during Weekends. States offices are not open, and it is the last Friday of May to send in your tax return, not the more convenient last day of the month. Doctors don't open surgeries on Sundays, and instead there are very high costs for home visits. Dentists are not available on Sundays no matter how excruciating the toothache is.

If giving the consumer what they want is the basis for Sunday opening, those places should be asking to open; that they do not, and garden centres do, is because the pressure actually comes from the retail outlet rather than the consumer alone. The consumer enjoys extra choice, but if the establishment does not want to give that choice, no amount of consumer pressure will make the tiniest difference. So let's lay to rest the argument that "the consumer is king". That is nonsense, a glib cliché which is used in place of solid argument.

Much is made of the hospitality industry, and recently Robert Mackenzie was using an argument that French visitors are "bewildered" at finding shops closed in St Helier on a Sunday. He clearly had not studied the situation in France, where since 1906 the broad principle has been that most stores are forbidden to open on Sundays, but a complex arrangement of exceptions has evolved. While the UK has opened its shops on Sunday since 1994, the French have managed to keep most of theirs closed.

Looking  at France, our geographical neighbour, is useful, because it has writ large many of the issues which face us here. As a recent article in the Economist explained:

"The issue is politically charged, but the fault line is not clearly between left and right. Some on both sides of the aisle think Sundays must be kept special, both to guard against non-stop consumerism and to protect family life. Unions worry that workers will little by little be forced to work on Sundays if Sunday trading becomes the norm."

"Many retail bosses say that sales on Sunday contribute more than a seventh of the week's turnover and they want more of them. Owners of small stores fear that they cannot field the staff to open every day and will lose market share if Sunday trading is widely permitted."

"Workers are mixed. Some, including many students, are happy to have the jobs and like the extra pay that Sunday shifts attract. But others, including two assistants in different central Paris clothing stores a few days ago, cannot bear the idea of being on their feet seven days a week." (1)

Listening to "The Politics Hour" on BBC Radio Jersey, these were very much the issues which surfaced. It was also interesting that none of the business people interviewed opened on a Sunday. The baker found it was uneconomic, the same turnover spread over more days, with more staff need, so more overheads. And the businessman who was in favour of shops opening so that he could shop was not in favour of keeping his business open on a Sunday. It seems that while people want other people to be on hand to serve them, they often see no necessity to do so themselves. And one has to wonder how many of the owners of  businesses which are open on Sundays are themselves working.

Meanwhile, the worker bears the brunt, and in Scotland, which has had Sunday trading for much longer, studies have shown that  "premium payments for Sunday working have been 'remorselessly eroded' since 1994 and most stores now only pay weekday rates to Sunday staff."(3)

France in looking at Sunday trading was to ensure workers rights are protected in a way that is not the case in the UK. The recent report "recommended that employers should be required by law to acquire the voluntary agreement of employees to work on Sunday. A collective agreement should be drawn up between employers and trade unions on terms for Sunday working - but if none were reached the law should spell out double pay and extra time off in lieu."(4)

Where the past differs from the present is immediacy. People want instant gratification. If we want something, and can pay for it, we can often have it right away. This change in culture is one of the forces powering the move towards increased Sunday trading. The ability to wait, to have patience, is something which we are rapidly losing, and a lesson which is badly in need of relearning. The downside is the problems faced by families with debt and payday loans, of spending money because instant gratification has become a habit. That is the negative consequence of expanding Sunday opening, which feeds into the culture of want, not need. Sunday trading is just going with the flow, but perhaps we need to be more critical of the prevailing culture, and its downside.

Another downside is family life, where the statistics show that "one in five UK families with children has a parent who works on Sundays. A study for the Rowntree Foundation in 2002 found 78% of mothers who do so would prefer not to."(3)

Meanwhile, Trish Deseine, a food writer in Paris describes family celebrations of Sunday:

"If you walk by Montparnasse, you will see big family reunions in the restaurants," she says. "There is a definite distinction between Sunday and the rest of the week. There is a sense of occasion. It is quieter and more family oriented. I really hope it stays this way."(5)

But family life is also especially important for the poorer members of society, where a mother may look for Sunday work to make ends meet. As Rachel Barenblatt observes:

"If you have to work several jobs just to get by, you can't be home to take care of your kids - which in turn means that those kids grow up not only fiscally struggling but parentless, and therefore statistically likelier to wind up in trouble." (7)

Who supplies all the extra workers for the Sunday trading? Those who are most vulnerable in terms of poverty, and accept the pay and conditions on offer, but to the detriment of their children, who not only see less of their parents, but also plants the seeds of social problems later.

Writing on the cultural changes wrought by Sunday opening in the UK, Annalisa Barbieri noted that

"Eventually, the stillness usually associated with Sundays dissipated, and every shopping day rolled into one. The sad thing is that, it all happened so slowly, I barely noticed. And I was too busy shopping to care." (6)

And she concludes with a lament for something important lost:

"One of the things I love about Christmas is the collective slowing down, that feeling almost of bunking off from life. No one else does very much, so you feel you can switch off, too. It's a little pit stop in a big year of action. I now realise, too late, of course, that this was what I loved about Sundays. They were like Christmas every week."

That absence of rush, of so much traffic, noise, bustle, is something which cannot be measured on a balance sheet, but which I think is important, just as much as family life is. Stress has become a killer in modern life, and at least Sundays provide a small respire from the pressures of today's busy world, an oasis at the end of the week. We should not reduce everything to mere economics; we are more than figures on a cash register.

References(1)   Source: Codex Justinianus, lib. 3, tit. 12, 3; trans. in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3 (5th ed.; New York: Scribner, 1902), p. 380, note 1.
(3)   Marketing, 2005, "Retail: Time to Draw a Line on Sunday Trading.", Helen Dickinson
(6)   New Statesmen, 1996, The Lost Weekend: Most Sundays No Longer Feel Special Now That Shops Stay Open, Annalisa Barbieri

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