There’s a revolt in France, we are told. Not about growing economic misery, rising unemployment and falling living standards. Not in anger at the scandalous, and still widening inequality of wealth. It is about opening shops on Sunday. The press say it’s about freedom, that it’s about jobs, about growth. But is it?
Two large DIY retailers, Leroy Merlin and Castorama, opened 14 of their stores in the Paris region last Sunday in defiance of a court ruling issued last week ordering their closure, the Financial Times reports.
Literally ‘dozens’ of their employees joined demonstrations in favour of Sunday opening under the slogan “Yes Weekend”, which, apparently, to French ears sounds like “Yes We Can”, Barack Obama’s presidential election slogan.
The unions are having none of it and have been successfully using the courts to try to clamp down on such deviations from both Sunday and evening work restrictions. Jean-Claude Mailly, head of Force Ouvrière (FO), said: “The rule is closure. Opening cannot be more than exceptions. We say, when there is Sunday working, it must be on double pay.”
Organised labour is being cast, as usual, as the party-poopers, stopping French citizens who are just dying to shop 7 days a week. And workers from working ’til they drop, without respite and regardless of proper recompense.
The Socialist government, for its part, isn’t only feeling the heat from unions and big retailers. It is also under ‘strong pressure from the EU and other institutions to liberalise France’s strict labour and broader market regulation,’ it transpires. So it hastily convened a cabinet meeting to discuss the issue.
That meeting concluded that Sunday ‘rest’ remained an ‘essential principle of worker protection and social cohesion’. However, the government also decided appointed a commission to examine ‘the weaknesses of the current rules’, under which some types of shops can open quite freely on a Sunday while other stores can do so for a few hours, while others still cannot open at all. In the meantime, the Government has said the law must be respected.
Noting the 11 per cent unemployment rate and struggling growth, the FT reports ‘rising demands, including from affected workers, for change.’ And adds: ‘Advocates of Sunday opening say tens of thousands of new jobs could be created.’
But it doesn’t quote any figures. One French newspaper did, however. The jobs figure most commonly cited in French newspapers is an impressive 100,000. This, Liberation, points out, derives from a 20-year old study conducted in the US which found that restrictions on Sunday work led to a ‘cost’ in terms of employment, estimated at 2 % and 6 % . The pro-Sunday working camp – that is the large retailers – used the 6% figure and applied it to the 1.8 million employees in the retail sector to get the 100,000 figure. A similar study in Canada found an employment gain of between 3 % and 12%, amazing given that that research saw no increase in sales volumes.
Yet more recent figures on the liberalisation of shopping hours in Italy since 1 January 2012 actually led the closure of 32,000 companies and the loss of 90,000 jobs, Les Echos reported.
In France, one study found that in the food sector alone, Sunday shopping would destroy 6,800 to 16,200 jobs, depending on the number of supermarkets deciding to open on Sundays. The job would be lost mostly among small businesses. In the non- food sector ‘cannibalism’ of small businesses would lead to 5,400 job cuts. But 14,800 jobs could be generated by deregulating shopping hours, if extended opportunities to shop led to increased spending by consumers and only if people dipped into their savings (or presumably took on more debt) and if tourists spent more in the shops.
That’s a lot of ifs. And when you consider there’s two million employed in retail in France, not very impressive.
In any case, Xavier Timbeau, a French economist writing about the matter when it reared its head a five years back, pours cold water on some of the underlining assumptions in these optimistic studies.
‘If you are open one more day, it will only generate more business if competitors are closed at the same time…. If all the stores that sell furniture or appliances are open every day of the week, they will sell as much as they are open six days a week. If one of them is open on Sundays and its competitors are closed, then it will capture a significant market share…
‘…But ultimately, consumers buy furniture for their children’s bedroom according to how many children they have, their age or the size of their home. They do not buy more because they can do their shopping on Sunday.
‘It is one’s income that will have the last word…consumer budgets are not unlimited, spending on one thing will be offset by reduced spending elsewhere. Year after year, new products, new patterns of spending, new businesses or the stimulus of new forms of distribution are emerging. These changes do not alter such constraints or consumer choice.’
And to underline his point, Timbeau points out that when Germany, in 2003, relaxed legislation on retail opening hours, this did not change overall consumer spending levels a jot. As Howard Davies, a former executive chairman of the bank regulator FSA and professor at Sciences Po in Paris concludes a day later in a comment piece in the same Financial Times that hyped the story: ‘There is no clear correlation in Europe between liberalised shopping hours and economic growth: the Germans and Austrians are the most restrictive countries.’
So who does stand to gain from all of this? The shop workers?
The CGT union argues that this debate on the ‘freedom to work’ on Sunday, in a sector where low wages or precarious job contracts are rife, is simply a pretext ‘intended to hide the need to provide real answers to retail employees through real wage increases and improvements in working conditions.’ Pointing to Leroy Merlin’s 5 billion-plus euro annual turnover, it says: ‘The means exist to satisfy the [fair wage] claims.’
There’s already evidence that seven day working is achieved without premium rates of pay and by disadvantageous changes to shifts. And if generalised, Sunday working will also ‘open the door’ to further deregulation – night work in particular – while existing employees who don’t want to work 24/7 will simply have to put up and shut up, the union argues.
The communists, who have been the most vociferous among political parties in opposing an extension of Sunday working in retail, state: ‘The prohibition of Sunday work has been and remains a major social conquest. To allow it would take us back to the 19th century. It is not by reversing this social progress that we can cope with the current economic crisis, which is the result of austerity policies, job insecurity and low wages.’
And that’s something the ‘Socialist’ French government, like others across Europe, appears unwilling to do much to change. Meanwhile the same old pro-deregulation arguments get trotted out, and repeated endlessly in the mainstream press, without challenge.