Government proposes amendments to Shop Opening Hours Act

In May 2003, the Austrian cabinet agreed on a proposed amendment to the Shop Opening Hours Act, which was likely to be passed by parliament in July 2003. This amendment, in principle, will only modestly liberalise Austria’s relatively restrictive opening hours regulations. However, certain clauses - opposed by trade unions - will entitle the governors of the regions (Länder) to overrule the Act's general provisions, including the possibility of abolishing the general ban on Sunday and holiday opening.

Over recent years, the Minister of Economy and Labour Affairs, Martin Bartenstein, has made several unsuccessful attempts to liberalise further the current regulations on shop opening hours, which were most recently amended in 1997 but are still seen as relatively restrictive (AT0101239N). Any such extension of opening hours and working time was opposed by both the social partners and the political parties in parliament, except the conservative People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) (AT0107221N). However, in spring 2003, the coalition government of the ÖVP and the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) reached agreement on further deregulation of the shop opening legislation.

Accordingly, Mr Bartenstein presented a draft legislative amendment which – after a short period of obtaining expert advice – was adopted by the cabinet without substantial changes on 6 May 2003. This amendment to the Shop Opening Hours Act (Öffnungszeitengesetz) would entitle retailers to open their shops for 66 hours per week (as at present) within an extended standard framework period - ie between 05.00 and 21.00 on weekdays and between 05.00 and 18.00 on Saturdays, instead of the current 06.00-19.30 on weekdays and 06.00-17.00 on Saturdays (AT0212201N). Moreover, the draft amendment would give the governors (Landeshauptleute) of each of the nine regions (Länder) the right to

  • restrict the new standard framework period for opening hours; and
  • extend the maximum shop opening hours from 66 to a maximum of 72 per week.

This would be done by way of decree, in response to the demands of local consumers and tourism requirements. Before enacting such a decree, the relevant statutory representative bodies of employees and employers (ie the chambers) would have to be consulted, as would the municipalities concerned (if the decree referred only to a certain geographical area below the Land level).

In principle, Sunday and public holiday opening would remain prohibited, though existing exceptions to the general ban would be extended. This would include shops and stores in railway stations, airports, bus stations and a range of other locations. The retailers concerned would be entitled to sell all kinds of goods, instead of the rather limited range of goods needed for a journey laid down by the current regulations (AT9908162F). Similar to the regulations for shops in petrol stations, these sales locations would have a maximum sales area of 80 square metres. However, this limitation would not apply to shops situated in railway stations and airports within the area surrounding Vienna and the Länder capitals.

The governors of the Länder would be entitled to overrule the general ban on Sunday and holiday work in retail. If governors saw a particular demand in certain areas or even the Land as a whole, they could establish unlimited periods of Sunday and holiday opening by way of decree (within the statutory maximum of 72 hours per week). The limitation of 80 square metres imposed on shops opening on Sundays and holidays in public transport locations could also be abolished by governors.

The trade unions consider these proposed amendments as an attempt at bypassing employees’ general right to a rest period on Sundays and public holidays. In particular, the unions claim that the many powers given to the governors of Länder to order exceptions to the standard regulations will substantially damage employees’ working conditions and might, in the long run, put the governors under pressure from large retailers to extend opening hours and thus create a 'negative' competition to have the most deregulated arrangement. So far, however, none of the governors has expressed a willingness to use the proposed new power to either extend shop opening hours above the 'regular' limit of 66 hours a week or allow Sunday or holiday opening above and beyond the existing regulations (that usually relate to tourism regions).

The amendment will probably be passed by parliament in July 2003.

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