Almost twenty years on from the bitter arguments in the UK about relaxing Sunday Trading laws, a similar debate appears to be surfacing in France, where much tighter restrictions on Sunday trading remain (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24458571). Now, I was only 13 when the Sunday Trading Act 1994 (STA) received Royal Assent in August 1994 which removed all Sunday restrictions on small shops, and allowed large stores to open for a maximum of six hours between 10.00 and 18.00, but I am old enough to recall life before the STA and to have followed the debate at the time.
The STA came about after intense pressure from large stores, and in particular DIY stores, some of which began a campaign of deliberately breaking the previous 1950 restrictions. Despite openly breaking the law, the government of the day appeared reluctant to punish offenders. Hardly surprising given that the same governing party had tried, but failed, to remove all restrictions on Sunday trading in 1986.
I hope that France will not follow the UK. Not for any religious sentiment, nor because I believe that Sunday should be any more special than any other day of the week, nor because I believe the State should tell people when they can and cannot shop. I would have opposed the 1994 Act on the grounds that workers deserve at least one day of the week when they know they can be free from work. It just so happens that Sunday has evolved over generations as the most appropriate day for that to happen.
Now, I can already hear the cries of ‘but we WANT to work on Sundays’, or ‘what about those of us who don’t have friends or family to spend time with?’. Well, as with everything, there will be some people who do not fit the generalisation. More importantly, the impact of the STA 1994 has been far wider than shop workers. As more and more shops have opened on Sundays, and as Sunday has become less distinguishable from other days of the week, more industries and workers have been forced to work on Sundays.
My background has been ‘on the buses’, where I spent several years as a senior shop steward and full-time bus driver. I noted earlier that I was only 13 in 1994, but I have been able to research the effect of Sunday trading at the bus company where I once worked.
Back in 1994 few, if any shops in the town centre were open. Even pubs and clubs were only allowed to open over lunchtime and again in the evening. Bus services operated to significantly reduced timetables on Sundays, and the Sunday routes were often an amalgamation of weekday routes. For example, one area of the town was served during the week in 1994 by no fewer than four separate services with upto 12 buses an hour. On Sundays there was just one route covering the same area with just one bus an hour. Most services tended not start running until 11.00, but continued to run through until 22.30, reflecting travel patterns and demand on Sundays. Lunchtime would see pub and club patrons and hospital visitors, the early afternoon would see leisure travellers visiting the town centre and parks, and the evening would see restaurant diners and pub patrons. Staff levels on a Sunday were very low, which meant bus drivers worked on average 1 out of 6 Sundays. Although premium wage rates for Sunday working were one of the first casualties of privatisation in 1987, drivers were ‘compensated’ with a guaranteed four-day weekend rest after each working Sunday.
All this changed towards the end of 1994. In October 1994, in response to the almost overnight transformation of shopping patterns on Sunday, most bus routes saw earlier buses running from 09.00 and increased frequencies. In the first few years after the STA was passed, this only had a moderate effect of increasing the average number of Sundays worked from 1 out of 6 to 1 out of 4. The compensatory four-day weekend rest was maintained.
By the early 2000s the number of journeys being made on Sundays, but also the huge increase in traffic volumes around the town, demanded that Sunday routes that were an amalgamation of weekday routes had to be split and frequencies increased once again. The result being that drivers were then required to work at least 1 in 3 Sundays, and were no longer compensated with a ‘long’ weekend off following a working Sunday.
This then becomes an eternal cycle, where more and more people are needed to provide the services and infrastructure necessary to accommodate Sunday trading. This ‘normalising’ of Sundays cannot be good for health, for relationships, for families or for socialisation. And, of course, who is hit hardest? The poorest. Those employed in service industries. When I look back to the bus company, the trebling of staff needed to work on Sundays between 1994 and 2004 was in the lowest paid grades. Clerical staff, head office staff and management did not have Sundays added to their working week – after all the supermarkets and shopping centres need some people not to be at work on Sundays!
Finally, while I make no argument on religious grounds nor on the grounds of ‘traditional values’ (my argument is solely that workers deserve one day a week free from the toils of work) there is a strange irony that the Conservative Party have been at the forefront of relaxing and deregulating trading laws while at the same time espousing the virtues of the Christian Church and family life.
I doubt we can go back to the pre-1994 situation, but I hope we will not deregulate further the Sunday trading laws.