Negotiations deadlocked over more flexible shop opening hours

In June 2001, the long-running efforts to introduce more liberal shop opening hours in Austria suffered a severe setback. A new ministerial proposal to amend the current legislation seems likely to fail due to sharp criticism from the social partners and increasing tensions within the coalition government.

Austria's minister of economic and labour affairs, Martin Bartenstein, is once again seeking to amend current shop opening hours regulations (AT0102239N), launching a further liberalisation initiative on 5 April 2001. Under his proposal, companies would be free to open their shops for a maximum of 72 hours between 00.00 on Monday until 17.00 on Saturday, which is six hours more than currently permitted. In addition, the minister proposed more flexible opening hours on Saturdays for service sector businesses, such as retail banks. Specific regional restrictions could be set by the governors of each of the nine federal states, corresponding to the prevailing demands of local consumers and the needs of tourism.

Although the further extension of shop opening hours is part of the work programme of the current coalition government of the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) and the conservative People's Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) (AT0002212F), the FPÖ strongly rejected the minister's proposal, mainly due to the proposed opening during night hours, which is regarded as unacceptable for employees. Furthermore, the commerce section of the Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ), which was formerly a proponent of liberalisation, now criticises the new proposal for three reasons:

  • the majority of WKÖ members oppose the total liberalisation of shop opening hours;
  • the proposed regulation of shop opening hours in line with the local shopping demands of tourists seems questionable; and
  • WKÖ questions whether allowing the governors of federal states to set opening hours is in conformity with the Austrian Constitution.

The trade unions have also protested strongly against the ministerial proposal, claiming that liberalisation of shop opening hours benefits only large retailers at the expense of consumers and retail employees. The Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) and its largest affiliate, the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA), stated that a further deregulation of shop opening hours would increase market concentration, because only large retailers could afford to utilise more flexible and longer opening hours. In the long run, only a few large companies would remain in the market and determine the prices, which would rise to the disadvantage of consumers. As the liberalisation of shop opening hours leads directly to a need for increased working time flexibility, working conditions are expected to deteriorate as a result, claimed the Chamber of Labour (Bundesarbeitskammer, BAK), while there are no discernible advantages for consumers or small and medium-sized retailers.

The strong opposition to the ministerial proposal from the social partners, the employees and the majority of the employers, as well as from the coalition partner, the FPÖ, has forced Mr Bartenstein to postpone negotiations until autumn 2001. Since the coalition government has demonstrated its willingness to launch reforms against the wishes of the social partners on several other occasions, the FPÖ's opposition is the most serious impediment. In response to falling support among voters, the FPÖ hesitates to embark on a reform which appears to be rather unpopular among both employers and employees.

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