Extended shop opening hours provoke storm

In October 2013, the government in Cyprus renewed legislation introduced in July to extend shop opening hours in tourist areas, and also declared the whole country a tourist zone. The government believes that the changes will boost employment. Unions, however, say that unscrupulous employers will avoid taking on new workers by hiring casual workers at less than the minimum wage, and some are already forcing current employees to work longer hours than the law allows.

Shop opening hours extended

On 11 October 2013, the Minister of Labour and Social Insurance (MLSI), Zeta Aimilianidou, announced the renewal of decrees on shop opening hours in tourist areas.

The decrees first came into effect on 8 July 2013 in the form of amendments to legislation governing shop opening hours, and to laws setting out the terms and conditions of employment (Law 155(I)/2006; Law 68(I)/2007; and Law 6(I)/2011). The amendments stipulate that shops operating in tourist areas can open from Monday to Saturday between 05:00 and 23:00, and on Sunday between 09:00 and 23:00. Each enterprise can set its own opening days and hours within the times stipulated.

The island’s designated tourist areas have been extended and now encompass the whole of Cyprus. Additional measures have also been taken to support small and medium-sized enterprises. Specifically, kiosks, convenience shops and bakeries have the right to sell more types of products. As a result of a memorandum of understanding signed by employer associations, kiosks and bakeries will now be the exclusive sellers of certain products on Sundays only.

To boost employment, employers are required to continue to hire new staff as they are needed, rather than extending the working hours of existing employees, and basic employment rights are also safeguarded. Specifically, a maximum of 38 working hours a week will continue to be distributed between Monday and Saturday and, if a worker consents to work on a Sunday, they will be paid overtime at a rate of twice the usual hourly wage. This regulation applies to employees working in shops that used to be closed on Sundays and who were hired before new regulations came into effect in July 2013.

Employers’ reactions mixed

The Cyprus Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCCI), the Employers and Industrialists Federation (OEB) and the Pancyprian Association of Retailers are in favour of the measures, and they stress the benefits of longer opening hours, both for enterprises and for employment.

However, because the extended hours are a temporary measure, the Pancyprian Association of Retailers has stressed that dialogue should continue to introduce an effective permanent set of regulations for retail outlets. The association was established on 11 September 2013 on the initiative of the Alpha Mega supermarket chain, and it currently has 40 member enterprises, employing around 8,000 workers. Its goal is to promote the positive aspect of extended opening hours.

Despite the general euphoria that greeted the renewal of the extended opening hours in the world of commerce, the Association of Convenience Stores (SYKADE) denied that support for the decision to continue extended trading hours had been unanimous among the retail organisations involved. These include the Pancyprian Association of Supermarkets, the Pancyprian Association of Retail Trade, the Union of Cyprus Retail Trade, the Pancyprian Association of Bakers, SYKADE and local chambers of commerce. SYKADE said it believed the renewal was a hasty decision that would cause irreparable harm to small and medium-sized enterprises, especially kiosks and convenience shops, because the new opening hours will make it impossible for them to withstand competition from major retail chains. Many have had to close down in recent months.

Strong opposition was also voiced by the Pancyprian Professional Small Shopkeepers Federation (POBEK). Its General Secretary, Stefanos Koursaris, stressed that the decision to transform Cyprus into a single tourist zone would prove disastrous for small traders and only benefit big companies and supermarkets. He said that many employees in larger retail stores were being forced to work exhausting hours, in violation of the law. Meanwhile, Statistical Service of Cyprus data from the first quarter of 2013 show that not only is the government’s target of increasing the liquidity of retail enterprises not being met, but their overall turnover in the first three months of 2013 fell by 25%.

Trade unions oppose measures

The three major union federations, the Democratic Labour Federation of Cyprus (DEOK), the Pancyprian Federation of Labour (PEO) and the Cyprus Workers’ Confederation (SEK), opposed the introduction of the measures. Each reacted differently, however, and having made their views known, none have taken further action.

The DEOK and the SEK focused their criticism on the negative impact that longer shop hours would have on retail workers’ social lives, making it difficult for them to reconcile work and family life. Both federations believe that where more staff are needed, the gaps are instead being filled by existing staff and, as a result, employees are working exhausting hours in violation of labour legislation.

The PEO observed that the measures intensify the deregulation of labour relations in the retail sector. In a statement issued on 9 October 2013, PEO said that its members are complaining daily about a great number of violations, such as failure to pay overtime, the implementation of split working days without workers’ consent, obligatory Sunday working and the hiring of staff on an hourly casual basis at less than the minimum wage.

While the MLSI has talked of the creation of 1,700 new jobs since the extended working hours were introduced last July, PEO has said that Labour Force Survey statistics show that employment always rises in the retail sector each year in July, August and September.

Eva Soumeli, INEK

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