By Elias Hazou
Thousands of people could be out of a job at the stroke of a pen should parliament decide that shops must be closed on Sunday, the affected employees tell the Cyprus Mail.
Most of those hired since July 2013, with the introduction of extended hours and Sundays, had up until then been long-term unemployed persons or working part-time in jobs like food delivery.
“For the majority, getting a job is a matter of survival. Every hour we clock is worth gold to us,” said Nikoletta Poulli, a spokesperson for the Association of Newly-Hired Employees in Retail.
And whereas wages are low – ranging from €500 to €700 a month – they are infinitely better than no income at all, she added.
Under the previous regime, the labour minister would issue decrees on an ad hoc basis allowing shops in tourist areas to operate on Sundays from 11am to 7pm and have extended hours during the rest of the week.
But in March, the House passed a law stripping the minister of the right to issue decrees, forcing the government to draw up comprehensive regulations on the matter, which in turn need parliamentary approval.
The decree expires on Thursday, April 30. Unless it is extended, or new ordinances passed regulating the matter, a legal vacuum will be created.
On Thursday, ruling DISY will table a bill to the House plenum, proposing a quick fix: the last ministerial decree is to be extended to May 15, so that current shop hours, as well as Sundays, remain in effect until that date.
The move has the backing of AKEL and EDEK, and looks likely to pass.
It’s hoped that by mid-May the parties can strike some sort of compromise formula.
Whereas opposition parties are fine with extended hours on weekdays, they are unanimous in wanting general stores staying shut on Sundays.
But it is precisely Sunday work that most of the newly-hired employees rely on to make ends meet.
In opposing Sundays, opposition parties claim they are protecting small-and-medium sized businesses, who say they cannot compete with large retail outfits.
These interests are represented by the small shopkeepers association (POVEK), 24-hour convenience stores, bakeries and butchers, and kiosks. They are backed by left-leaning worker trade unions.
On the other side of the fence, in favour of extended shop hours, are the retailers association, fruit markets, small supermarkets, the Cyprus Consumers Association, the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Cyprus Tourism Organisation and the Federation of Employers and Industrialists.
DIKO MP Angelos Votsis has been at the forefront of the campaign to scrap Sundays. Under his proposal, only certain specialty stores would be allowed to work on that day. These would include souvenir shops, catering to tourists, as well as furniture stores, the latter operating for a few hours only.
In addition, according to Votsis, general stores in the Famagusta district alone would stay open throughout the week.
It’s understood that, behind the scenes, pressure groups on both sides have been leaning on politicians.
On Tuesday Greens MP George Perdikis alleged that he was being subjected to “blackmail” from interest groups, which he did not name.
But he pledged he would not succumb to the pressure, and would stick to his guns on backing Sunday closures.
According to Perdikis, he and other MPs have been getting threatening – but always anonymous – messages from people posing as indignant consumers, demanding that Sundays are kept.
For DISY, the issue is a practical one, not dogmatic, MP Nicos Nouris told the Cyprus Mail.
Citing data from social security, he said that from 2011 to 2013 some 5,000 jobs were lost in retail. From July 2013 – when extended hours were first introduced – up to December 31, 2014, 16,000 people were hired, of whom 11,000 now remain.
“Let’s posit, for argument’s sake, that the 11,000 figure is wrong, that maybe 9,000 people actually got work with the new system. OK, but that’s still a lot of folks.”
And whereas AKEL may have a point that businesses are axing full-time jobs to create more part-timers, whom they then pay less, one has to look at the larger picture, said Nouris.
That’s because, again according to the same social security data, out of the 11,000 new hires, 8,200 of them are getting an average salary of €800.
AKEL deputy Andreas Fakondis had a different reading of the numbers.
Since extended hours were implemented, he said, 1,364 extra work-hours were created. If Sundays were to be nixed, this would lead to 364 work-hours less only.
There’s therefore no reason to assume that businesses would fire employees en masse were Sundays to be abolished, argued Fakondis.
“We want to protect small family businesses, those with 10 people and under, who simply can’t afford to stay open for long hours throughout the week, either because of extra electricity costs or the need to hire more people.”
The AKEL MP hinted also that big business is behind the roadside billboards calling for Sunday shopping.
“Do you think the retail employees can afford those?” he said.
For their part, the ‘newly-hired’ retail workers say they want to be left out of the politics.
“They [politicians] must find a way so that no one loses their job either way,” Poulli said.
“But here’s some food for thought: from the outset, just a couple of weeks after the extended hours were introduced, in the summer of 2013, some were already making noises that businesses were shuttering.
“Two weeks, really? That was fast,” she remarked.