New controversy over shop opening hours

In late 2000, Austria's minister of economic and labour affairs proposed further liberalisation of shop opening hours, causing tensions within the coalition government and drawing sharp criticism from the social partners.

Under current regulations, liberalised to some extent in recent years, shops in Austria may open on weekdays until 19.30 and on Saturdays until 17.00. Compared with other EU Member States, these rules are relatively strict. However, they are not fully utilised by companies. Only slightly more than one-third of companies operate the longer opening hours, with more than half of these companies regarding the results as satisfactory. On the other hand, the employees affected take the view that the changes caused by the liberalisation measures have had a negative impact on their working conditions.

In late 2000, the minister of economic and labour affairs, Martin Bartenstein, proposed further liberalisation measures, aimed not only at extending shop opening hours, but also at signalling more deregulation and less state intervention. He proposes that companies should be free to open their shops for a maximum of 72 hours between 00.00 on Monday and 17.00 on Saturday, which is six hours more than currently permitted. Specific restrictions in individual sectors would be maintained (eg sale of food products). In principle, this further liberalisation 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). After the minister announced his proposals, however, controversies over the interpretation of this part of the programme have become evident within the coalition. The FPÖ, as well as social partner organisations and business affiliates of political parties reacted negatively to the proposal.

The FPÖ rejected the changes mainly due to the planned opening during night hours, which is deemed unacceptable for employees. Representatives of the business organisation affiliated to the ÖVP, the Östereichischer Wirtschaftsbund (ÖWB), claimed that only large companies would benefit from the further liberalisation measures, while small and medium-sized companies would not. The Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) and the Chamber of Labour (Bundesarbeitskammer, BAK) also protested against the proposal. Despite this criticism and former disputes about this issue (AT9911204N), the minister seems committed to implementing these measure and continuing with liberalisation.

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