New legislative proposal on the regulation of retail opening hours

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In summer 1997, the Norwegian Government put forward a new legislative proposal regarding opening hours in the retail trade. The Government proposes to make opening hours dependent on the size of the outlet. If the proposal is passed, the opening hours for many outlets will be restricted compared with current practice, while some smaller outlets will be able to extend their opening hours.

Just before the 1997 parliamentary summer recess, the Norwegian Government presented its legislative proposal regarding opening hours for retail outlets (Ot.prp.nr.75 1996-7). The proposal entails that retail outlets of a certain size will have restricted access to late opening (evenings) and opening on Sundays and public holidays. Three elements have been central in the discussion regarding opening hours. First of all, the employee organisations are concerned that long opening hours are a strain for the employees concerned. A counterweight to this is the argument that extended opening hours will mean more jobs and improved customer service. The last element which has been discussed is how different types of regulations will influence competition between those outlets which will be affected by the more restrictive opening hours and those which are not directly affected by the new legislation.

Background to the proposal

In Norway, working hours are generally regulated through the 1977 Worker Protection and Working Environment Act. Work on Sundays, public holidays and during the night (ie, between 21.00 and 06.00) is allowed only if there is a specific need. The Act stipulates which types of jobs are exempt from the Act's general requirements. The retail trade has until now been exempt from the Act's restrictions regarding night work and work on Sundays and public holidays. Within this sector, working hours have been regulated through the Opening Hours Act and by municipal regulations. The current Opening Hours Act permits all outlets to stay open from 06.00. to 20.00 during weekdays and between 06.00 and 18.00 on days before Sundays and public holidays. If a municipality has not regulated opening hours through local regulations, the outlets may on weekdays stay open 24 hours. However, the outlets can stay open on Sundays and public holidays only if this is allowed by local regulations. Kiosks, news-stands, petrol stations, outlets at distinctive tourist attractions and some other outlets are exempt from the current Opening Hours Act.

From the mid-1980s up to the present, opening hours - especially of grocery stores - have been significantly extended. Many shops stay open until 20.00 on weekdays and until 18.00 on Saturdays, and some shops, particularly in the larger cities, have longer opening hours than this. The tendency for more shops to stay open longer during the evening has intensified the employee organisations' demands that the retail trade should be covered by the Worker Protection and Working Environment Act. Another reason why the Government took a new look at the legislation was the problem of distinguishing between kiosks, which under the current legislation may open on Sundays, and grocery stores, which in most municipalities may not open on Sundays.

The contents of the proposal and reactions

The legislative proposal provides that the Worker Protection and Working Environment Act will regulate working hours for retail outlets - ie, permissible working hours will be between 06.00 and 21.00. At the same time, the Government is proposing that access to "necessary commodities" during evenings and weekends will be ensured through another Act (the Opening Hours Act). Outlets with a sales area under 100 square metres and petrol stations with a sales area of under 150 square metres will be exempt from the Worker Protection and Working Environment Act's clauses regarding normal working hours, and may remain open during the evening and on Sundays. This means that almost all petrol stations will be exempt, as will approximately 80% of today's kiosks. However, only 16% of grocery stores have a sales area of less than 100 square metres (according to HK-nytt No. 3, 1997).

Many different points of view became evident when the Government heard the interested parties. Generally, the legislative proposal has met massive opposition from shop-owners. They fear that the petrol stations and large kiosks will take over a larger share of their revenues from grocery goods. The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and the Norwegian Union of Employees in Commerce and Offices are satisfied that the Government has proposed that retail outlets are to be covered by the Worker Protection and Working Environment Act with regard to working hours. The employee organisations would, however, prefer that access to extended opening hours is based on the number of different types of goods for sale, or alternatively that the exemption rules are made applicable to outlets with a significantly smaller sales area than proposed by the Government. Several of the trade organisations also believe that a restriction according to the number of goods for sale in Sunday-opening shops is more appropriate than the size of the outlet's sales area.

Commentary

The proposal to restrict shop opening hours has met with fairly strong criticism in the media. The political parties to the right believe that the proposal takes too much consideration of the employee organisations' points of view, at the cost of the public interest and consumers. These political parties, along with the employers' organisations, would prefer to see greater flexibility with regard to working hours. The Labour Party can, however, can expect support from several of the parties in the centre with regard to one or another type of regulation regarding opening hours. Different actors within the retail trade are claiming that a restriction according to size will lead to various types of unintended behaviour, such as adapting the size of the shop to accommodate the new regulations. The trade unions also believe that the proposed legislation will entail that smaller outlets will, for reasons of competitiveness, be forced to open on Sundays, and this will in turn mean that even more outlets are open late and on Sundays. (Kristine Nergaard, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)

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