New regulations to extend Sunday shop opening hours
New regulations on Sunday shop opening hours, introduced by government, are causing tensions among the social partners in the retail sector. Previously, the social partners had shown a united front in rejecting the government plans. However, when the government went ahead with increasing the allowed number of Sunday openings a year, this united front crumbled, and the issue of wage compensation for the proposed Sunday openings came to the fore.
Regulations on the opening hours of shops
In Belgium, regulations on opening hours of shops (in Flemish and French) are based on two main principles:
- Opening hours – shops can be open between 5.00 and 21.00 every day of the week, with the exceptions of, for example, Belgian chip stands and petrol stations which can remain open later at night. Night shops can be open between 18.00 and 7.00.
- Day of rest – a shop owner is obliged to take an uninterrupted rest period of 24 hours each week, keeping it to the same day of the week for at
least six months. Shop owners can determine this rest period independently and can open on Sundays if they wish. However, other than a few
exceptions, they are not allowed to employ personnel on Sundays; the exceptions to this ‘day of rest’ rule are based on the following:
- the activity – some small shops are allowed to open on Sundays until 13.00 and can employ personnel during this time. Typical examples of such small shops would be bakeries, butchers, small food stores and florists;
- the location – shops situated in tourist centres, bathing or health resorts can always be open on Sundays.
A third exception in relation to the ‘day of rest’ had implied that all shops could open three Sundays a year. In March 2006, the Belgian government announced that it wanted to raise the number of Sunday openings to six or nine openings a year. However, following a protest by a seemingly united front of sector representative social partners, the decision was postponed and negotiation was handed over to these partners. They were asked to reach agreement on the topic before the end of 2006. After they failed to agree within the given timeframe, the government unilaterally took a decision on the issue in the Council of Ministers on 16 February 2007. The main issue of contention between the bargaining parties related to wage compensation for working the three extra Sundays a year.
The new legislation stipulated that, from March 2007, Belgian shops can be open on six or even up to nine Sundays a year, if the local community council should agree.
However, the new law states that an agreement has to exist between employers and employees on wage compensation for working on these Sundays. The new regulation therefore distinguishes between retailers with a trade union representation and those without union representation. For companies without trade union representation, Sunday openings can only be organised if a collective agreement on wage compensation exists at sector level between the employer organisations and trade unions. Companies with trade union representation have more options: they can be bound by a sectoral agreement or, if no such agreement exists, the matter can be dealt with at company level or on an individual basis. In the two latter situations, the new regulation prescribes that the wage for working Sundays has to be at least double the normal wage.
Campaign for more liberalisation
An organisation representing small shop owners, the Liberal Association of Self-Employed (Liberaal Verbond voor Zelfstandigen, LVZ), is campaigning for a total liberalisation of opening hours. According to LVZ, the whole package of regulations on shop opening hours, along with all the exceptions, should be abolished. The association believes that opening hours should be decided by individual shop owners in consultation with their personnel. In this regard, LVZ is supporting an online petition (in Flemish), set up by the owner of a bakery who was fined for not respecting the rules on opening hours. The owner objected to the imposed fine on the grounds that his business as a normal bakery was being punished, while at the same time a petrol station shop could sell bread without incurring any such fine. This campaign did not receive any support from the larger organisations representing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) like the Organisation of the Self-Employed (Unie van de Zelfstandige Ondernemers, UNIZO) or the Neutral Union of the Self-Employed (Het Neutraal Syndicaat voor Zelfstandigen/Syndicat Neutre pour Indépendants, NSZ/SNI).
It remains surprising that this flexibility measure (BE0507301N) proposed by the government was at first rejected by the social partners in the sector and not just by the trade unions. In the near future, it will be interesting to see how the different sector committees involved in collective bargaining in the Belgian retail sector (TN0407101S) will conclude agreements on wage compensation under the new legislation.
Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute of Labour Studies (HIVA), Catholic University of Leuven