EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Greece: Changes to shop opening hours and working time

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The introduction of shop opening on seven selected Sundays and every Sunday in 10 pilot areas has been a significant development for the retail sector. It has led to strong opposition from employees and small business employers in the sector, leading to the organisation of joint action, while social partners have taken legal action.

Background

The enactment of shop opening on Sundays (Law 4177/2013) has been a significant development for the retail sector. It resulted from the implementation of the legislative framework adopted in 2013 as a ‘memorandum commitment’ to apply the Competition Assessment Project and the relative Competition Assessment Toolkit provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  

With Law 4177/2013, the government introduced the free operation of all shops in Greece, regardless of size, for seven specific Sundays of the year. The law also provides the possible additional optional operation of shops beyond these seven Sundays, under the following conditions.

  • The shops must have a total floor area of up to 250 square metres.
  • With the exception of franchises, they must not belong to a chain of shops.
  • They cannot operate as a 'shop-in-a-shop'.
  • They cannot be located in outlet stores, shopping malls or discount villages.

This possibility is provided for each region and municipality in the country, by an annual decision of the regional vice-governor, following consultation with the social partners in each region.

Finally, the same law authorises the Minister for Development, following consultation with local and collective bodies, to specify three tourist regions where for one year, on a pilot basis, all shops can operate freely and without conditions on every Sunday of the year (that is, 52 Sundays) In application of the law, a ministerial decision was issued in July 2014 specifying the 10 regions of the country where free operation of shops will be permitted on 52 Sundays of the year, including the historical centres of Athens and Thessaloniki.

According to the government, the aim of these measures is to improve competitiveness, modernise markets, serve consumers, boost tourism and increase employment.

Joint intervention of employers and employees against Sunday trading

The issuing of the ministerial decision and the more general attempt to introduce Sunday trading caused a series of reactions from the relevant sectoral organisations of small and medium enterprise (SME) employers – the National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce (ESEE) and the Hellenic Confederation of Professionals, Craftsmen and Merchants ​(GSEVEE) – and employees – the Federation of Private Sector Employees (OIYE). On 4 July 2014, the three organisations met and agreed to take joint action to have the measure repealed.

On 8 July, the organisations jointly lodged an appeal at the Supreme Administrative Court (Council of State) against the ministerial decision allowing pilot Sunday trading in 10 regions, seeking its revocation. Their main arguments were:

  • the lack of prior consultation, which is required by law;
  • the arbitrary and undocumented selection of the regions for pilot implementation of the measure;
  • the creation of conditions of unequal competition between commercial enterprises (to the detriment of SMEs);

They put forward evidence from specific studies and surveys disputing a study from the OECD cited by the government.

The social partners in the retail sector note in their appeal that:

the ministerial decision uses development of tourism as a pretext, whereas in reality it serves the interests of large retail chains and foreign multinational companies that will use Sunday trading to eliminate small and medium-sized retailers, which make up 95% of enterprises and employ more than 80% of workers.

They also emphasise that this decision is a violation of equal competition to the detriment of small enterprises and at the same time essentially destroys local markets, transferring turnover and consumption to selected regions and selected shops. As a result, there will be even more closures of SMEs and job losses in the sector. They point out that the decision is further destroying labour relations and that employees are being forced into uncontrolled and extreme flexibility, with cheap, poorly paid work and/or undeclared employment.

According to the social partners, the government’s policy will lead to full and unlimited operation of all shops on every Sunday and in every region of the country.

National strike action

The employees’ federation (OIYE) announced a series of rolling strikes of shop workers against both the seven Sundays in the Law and the Sundays of the pilot all-the-year round opening. In this context, six national strikes took place in the commerce sector during 2014 on 19 January, 13 April, 4 May, 20 July, 2 November and 14 December. An additional strike took place on 13 July 2014 against the pilot Sunday opening of the shops in the areas concerned, mainly in the Athens and Thessaloniki historical centres. The protests were supported by Labour Centres, unions of shop workers, consumers, local trading associations and so on.

Assessments of the measure's implementation

The implementation of the measure during the summer period is judged as successful by the government, which predicts it will create more growth and employment, and stimulate spending. However, the social partners in the retail sector argue that Sunday trading results in turnover being concentrated in a few large enterprises, so that the sector will gradually become controlled by a small number of companies, prices will rise and costs will be passed on to consumers.

According to data published by ESEE in July 2014:

  • 75% of merchants were dissatisfied by the measure and by their Sunday turnover;
  • 64% of enterprises found the cost of Sunday trading unaffordable, while 40%–50% of shops could not afford to open;
  • 95% of shops do not plan to hire a single person, even a worker paid by the hour, in the immediate future.

Court decisions and social partner opposition

The Council of State’s Suspension Committee upheld the appeal by ESEE, GSEVEE and OIYE. In a decision (no. 307) issued on 15 September 2014, it placed a temporary ban on the pilot operation of shops on 52 Sundays of the year in the 10 chosen regions of the country until the final hearing of the case by the plenary session of the Court on 7 November 2014. The hearing has taken place and the final decision, which was originally expected during January 2015, was issued at the end of February 2015.

In its temporary decision, the court stated that if the measure was implemented:

a) it would violate formal requirements (late issuing of a ministerial decision without consultation; 10 regions instead of the three originally specified in the Law),

b) it would violate the right to free time, to family and personal life, and to religious rights, which are considered important and must be protected against arbitrary decisions of the government,

c) it would violate the principle of equal competition, favouring powerful interests, destroying small and medium-sized enterprises and employment, and infringing workers’ rights, according to the documented studies and the evidence that were adduced.

This decision provoked reaction from the ​Hellenic Federation of Enterprises​ (SEV), the ​Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises ​(SETE) and the ​Hellenic Business Retail Association​ (SELPE), which had all intervened in favour of the implementation of the ministerial decision. This in turn created friction and disagreements between the institutionally recognised sectoral (as well as national) employer organisations of ESEE and GSEVEE on the one hand, and SEV and SETE on the other. It also provoked a strong reaction from workers (GSEE and OIYE) in addition to the ongoing strikes held by OIYE since the beginning of the year on almost every Sunday when shops were open.

The President of SEV, Theodore Fessas, argued that the operation of large and small shops on Sundays is a recognised and effective practice abroad and that the anticipated benefits from the implementation of the measure in Greece will be positive, with the creation of 30,000 new jobs and an increase in total turnover to €2.5 billion.

The President of SETE, Andreas Andreadis, supported optional Sunday trading, linking the growth in tourism in the cities with the need for shops to open every day of the week.

The President of ESEE, Vassilios Korkidis, pointed out to SEV and SETE that it is inconceivable for them to oppose the other two social partners (ESEE and GSEVEE) without first having consulted them. He asked the two organisations to withdraw their legal interventions in favour of the measure, which ESEE believes is a matter that concerns only the retail sector.

For its part, GSEVEE expressed complete and unequivocal opposition to the abolition of Sunday closing and to shops opening on every Sunday of the year. It noted that the introduction of general Sunday trading violates the principles of equal competition, destroys small businesses, and reduces free time for family and a personal life.

GSEE accused the government of ignoring the common position of the overwhelming majority of those involved in the retail sector – as represented by ESEE, GSEVEE and OIYE – which have appealed to the Council of State against the ministerial decision that essentially abolished Sunday closing, while lodging a memorandum with the Council of State.

There was a similar reaction from OIYE, which noted that it is unacceptable for employers' organisations that neither represent nor express the views of the retail sector to get involved in the issue of Sunday trading.

Commentary

The issue of shop opening on Sundays has been controversial in the commerce sector. The enactment of Law 4177/13, which established the free opening for seven Sundays in a year, together with the pilot free opening in 10 areas for 52 Sundays, abolished the pre-existing legal framework, where the shops could operate freely only on the Sunday before Christmas except the tourist areas (for these shops there were local agreements). The government established the measure, following a suggestion by OECD, as a means to remove market barriers and to promote growth, competitiveness and employment. Nevertheless, the Sunday opening scheme provoked strong reactions not only from the employees in the commerce sector, but also from small and medium commercial companies. This in turn caused a serious interest conflict with employers’ associations representing the big retail and tourism sectors in Greece.

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