By Evie Andreou
BIG retailers yesterday vowed to defy the law on shop hours and remain open on Sundays and Wednesday afternoons after the government announced a return to the 2006 law until the Supreme Court rules on parliament’s last rejection in the ongoing dispute.
Now that the Christmas holiday longer opening hours are due to expire as of January 2, the retailers association said its members would continue to stay open on Sundays and Wednesdays – the same hours they have been operating the last two years – under the government’s previous decree, the secretary of the association, Marios Antoniou said.
The decision was taken during an extraordinary meeting of the association’s board on how to proceed following Monday’s announcement by the cabinet that it would refer parliament’s latest rejection of the government bill on opening hours to the Supreme Court on grounds of unconstitutionality.
Following the cabinet announcement, Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou said that until the Supreme Court settles the dispute, the 2006 law will be in effect as of January 2, meaning thousands of shops would have to remain shut on Wednesday afternoons and Sundays.
“Taking into consideration the minister’s pleas to refrain from letting staff go, we decided that our shops will continue to operate on Sundays as they have been the last two years,” Antoniou said. He added that their decision is based on the Supreme Court of December 3, which stipulates that, “exclusive authority to make such decisions rest with the executive branch and not the legislative”.
“Since a compromise could not be reached, the answer was given by the Supreme Court, and we respect and abide by its ruling,” Antoniou said.
But the big retail shops are not the only ones that will remain open he said. “We were informed that many businesses, small ones too, announced they would continue to operate on Sundays as well. This is to the surprise of all those critics who said that small businesses did not agree with the extended shop hours,” he added, referring to the small shopkeepers association POVEK, which has opposed Sunday opening.
The regulation of shop hours has been a great bone of contention the last two years between small shop owners, big retailers, and the government.
Last May, a parliamentary majority approved a legislative proposal that allowed some shops in designated “tourist areas” to remain open longer than others, but this was subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court on December 3 as it violated the executive’s sole privilege over such regulation.
Attorney-general Costas Clerides who was asked to weigh in on the matter, said the decision was for the government to make, and the House’s only role, however redundant, would be in ratifying it.
Still, a subsequent government plan to liberalise shops’ working hours to include Wednesday afternoons and Sundays was rejected earlier this month by parliament, which argued that it would stifle competition in favour of big business, even though the Supreme Court ruling mandated that parliament may legislate in broad terms but not on a granular level. As a result, a 2006 law regulating shops’ working hours will return into force as of January 2 – when the current ‘holiday’ working schedule expires.
This law will allow bakeries and kiosks to open on Wednesday afternoons and Sundays, but the remainder of retailers will have to remain closed or face being fined.
The head of the House labour committee, AKEL MP Andreas Fakontis, yesterday blamed the government for wanting to enforce its own agenda by using the Supreme Court as regards shopping hours.
Speaking to state broadcaster CyBC, he said that the government turned “a deaf ear” to all of the pleas of MPs, the majority of shop owners, and of the employees to reach a compromise solution.
“If there was an agreement between the House and the government, there would not be an issue of unconstitutionality. Unconstitutionality derives from the House rejecting the rules proposed by the government which refused to change not even an iota of the decrees,” Fakontis said.
He added that if the government had discussed the rules and agreed to a proposal that was tabled, for shops to be closed for 25 Sundays and be open the rest of year, there would not be an issue of unconstitutionality.
The Employers and Industrialists Federation (OEV) in an announcement said the extension of the uncertainty as regards the legal status of shop hours was negative for the retail sector. The extension of shop hours in March 2013, the announcement said, was the first essential action to stop the shrinking of the economy and the steep rise in unemployment.
OEV urged all retail businesses that hired people following the extension of shop hours to “limit to the minimum or nullify the need to let staff go”. It also urged everyone to “respect the freedom of doing business… for the good of economy as a whole”.