By Elias Hazou
The House labour committee said on Monday it will continue discussing a legislative proposal for tougher penalties on shops violating legally-prescribed retail opening hours, but that it will not bring the bill to the plenum until after a related Supreme Court ruling expected next month.
The legislative proposal – drafted by AKEL, EDEK, the Greens and DIKO MP Angelos Votsis – envisions stiffer sanctions on errant shops.
Among others, the bill would enable authorities to seal a shop on the three-strikes rule, and double the fines for violating normal working hours.
But according to Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou, speaking to reporters after attending the labour committee session, the item goes far beyond that.
The bill, she said, aims to amend a 2006 law – currently in force – by effectively overhauling it, addressing such details as what items different types of shops are allowed to sell.
“If someone [a shopkeeper] does not put up a sign, or a kiosk sells one-and-half litres of olive oil instead of the one litre allowed, will we then shut the premises for six months?” she mused, referring to one of the provisions.
“What will become of the employees?” she added.
Emilianidou said the government is against such legislation, as the way it has been framed is too generic and does not distinguish between types of violations.
It is also wrong because harsher punitive measures on the retail business are the last thing a sluggish economy needs, she added.
House labour committee chairman Andreas Fakondis (AKEL) acknowledged there was scope for improving certain of the provisions.
MP Nicos Nouris, of the ruling DISY party which opposes the proposed bill, said this was merely a retaliatory move by the opposition parties following a December 3, 2015 ruling by the Supreme Court which argued the right to regulate the policy was solely the government’s.
The broader issue pertains to a standoff between the legislature and the executive over who has the final say in matters relating to retail trade regulations.
The government wants a liberal working-hour schedule for shops, including the right to stay open on Sunday, which opposition parties claim benefits the large chains but is slowly killing small businesses who cannot afford to stay open as long.
The state is now seeking a ruling that a parliament decision, dated December 10, 2015, which rejected regulations tabled by the government regarding shop opening hours, “violates the principle of separation of powers and is invalid”.
The state is also asking for a judgement that the rejected regulations continued to be valid and should come into force immediately.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on this sometime next month.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in December said that a contentious parliament law in May 2015 was unconstitutional.
The law was not to be triggered until December, upon expiry of the last ministerial decree regulating shop hours. That ministerial decree provided for liberalised shop opening hours, allowing all shops to operate on Sundays as well.
In the meantime the parliament law was vetoed by the President, and the matter was referred to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile as the ministerial decree was set to expire, late last year the government tabled new regulations – again with extended shop hours – but on December 10 the House by a majority vote rejected those regulations.
Since neither the parliament’s May 2015 law nor the government regulations were in force, this meant reverting by default to a 2006 law.
This law – currently in force – allow bakeries and kiosks to open on Wednesday afternoons and Sundays, but the rest must remain closed or be threatened with a fine.
However, the law has been defied by most retailers, who continued to open on Wednesdays and Sundays, despite the sanctions they face – prompting opposition MPs to now propose tougher sanctions.
It’s understood that should parliament now lose the separation-of-powers case before the Supreme Court, it will retain the authority to amend the 2006 law, provided the amendments pertain to such issues as fines, and not to opening hours.