Working time in retail still under debate

Summer 1999 saw a renewal of Austria's long-running debate over opening hours in retail, with calls for longer weekly hours and more Sunday opening. However, the discussion seems to lack substance or commitment.

In late June 1999, opening hours in Austria's retail sector emerged anew as a hotly debated issue. Most contributions to the debate focused on weekly opening hours the Sunday closing of shops.

Weekly working hours

Companies claim that they have created 20,000 jobs since shop opening hours were modestly liberalised in 1997 (AT9712150F). This may be true, though its should be noted that a very large proportion of these new jobs pay less than ATS 3,899 gross per month. The number of retail employees earning more than this amount shows a decline over the same period, while the sales turnover of the large retailers increased by only 2%. Nonetheless, the large retailers would like to expand opening hours beyond the current legal limit of 66 hours per week.

The trade unions are vocally opposed, claiming that liberalisation has made working hours virtually impossible to keep track of, let alone police. They claim that, as a consequence, hundreds of millions of ATS worth of wages remain unpaid every year, mostly in food retailing. The Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA) claims that a recent check on working time in Styria led to the discovery that employees and apprentices work five to eight hours more per week than they get paid for. The best solution, the unions think, would be to bring back clocking-in.

Meanwhile, shops at petrol stations are open much longer, some of them around the clock, and have been expanding their range of products. Retail banks are also reconsidering their opening hours. Some have begun to open over lunch or later than the traditional 15.00. This does not affect the formal working times of bank employees and has no impact on employment. Creditanstalt, part of the Bank Austria Group, the largest Austrian bank, has begun to expand its "bank shop" business. One was set up in April 1998 (AT9901121F), a second was opened recently, and two more will open shortly. The bank shops are situated in shopping centres, and the staff involved are based in a booth, but mostly move around the centre. Other banks have not yet followed this lead but claim to be weighing the option. Food retailers, whose margins are being squeezed, are showing some interest in having self-service banking facilities in their shops. The second largest retailer claims that 500 or 600 of its outlets would be suitable. Furthermore, like the food retailers, the banks may eventually be present at petrol stations.

Sunday opening

Sunday and holiday work in retail has become a perennial issue (AT9811111N and AT9811113N). Shops are currently obliged to stay closed on Sundays and on the 13 official holidays, but there are exceptions (AT9712151F). The right to open can be granted, as an exception to the general ban, by provincial governments, and this has led to a multitude of separate regulations in different communities. Only in 1999 did the large retailers begin to keep their stores open in some areas, mostly in Tyrol and Carinthia. Under federal rules, a limited choice of goods can be sold in railway stations, airports, hospitals, petrol stations, and a number of other locations. In Vienna, where the Social Democratic majority in the provincial government refuses to grant exceptions, the large retailers have begun to offer a full range of products in such places, particularly in railway stations. Trade unions protested against this move by buying goods that were illegal to sell on a Sunday and then suing the company. The largest retailer claims to have paid ATS 4 million in fines relating to two of the chains it operates. Another large retailer claims that, of its nearly 100 outlets in and around Vienna, its shop in Vienna's largest hospital has the lowest personnel turnover, and that this is due to the double pay earned on Sundays.

A Mercedes-Benz dealer at Austria's largest shopping centre, south of Vienna, has devised a way of being "almost open" on Sundays without infringing the law. The shop is open and the cars on display but there are no shop assistants present, only two guards. There is information material and price lists, and cards on which customers can ask to be called back concerning a test drive or details of the models on offer. The company claims that there are between 70 and 80 visitors each Sunday.

The lines on this issue are not very clearly drawn. The GPA trade union, and with it the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB), is obviously opposed, particularly since it feels that it is not even able to police the special regulations pertaining to Saturday afternoons, let alone Sunday working. The Austrian Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) is partly in favour of Sunday opening, but the majority of its retail members remains firmly opposed. The Austrian People's Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP), the junior partner in the coalition government, is equally split. The Catholic church and the Austrian Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ) are also opposed, though the latter perhaps not as firmly as it may seem. An argument put forward by the Liberal Forum (LIF), the fourth largest party in parliament, is that a country with one of the highest savings quotas in the world needs to offer greater opportunity to spend the money. More demand would create more jobs. However, the majority of large retailers, though in favour of Sunday opening, does not expect sales to increase.

In surveys only a minority of the population, 20% to 30%, state that they want shops to be open on Sundays. There is, however, a vocal minority in the media and generally among better educated people, younger people and men who would prefer to be able to shop on Sundays. The situation was similar when opening on Saturday afternoons was under discussion in 1996. Since the liberalisation at the beginning of 1997, it has become customary for the chain stores to be open and well frequented at these times while the family businesses are closed. The media have also been giving some attention to the debate on Sunday opening in Germany, particularly in Berlin.

Commentary

Perhaps the renewed debate on opening hours was just a way to spend the summer. It is also possible is that it is a device being used by marketing managers: margins in retail are so low now that competition cannot take place only on price, and to be seen as fighting for better shopping hours may be conceived as a service. Survey results seem to indicate that such a tactic, if it actually exists, would backfire. The issue is likely to keep resurfacing once or twice a year. It is very unlikely, though, that the social partners or the government will further relax opening hours unless forced to by some EU Directive. (August Gächter, IHS)

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