31 Jan – 6 Feb 2001

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The Sunday that people want

Chris Grech on the changes that he believes are needed to the retail laws

By Miriam Dunn

The "thousands" of consumers and traders who have contacted Chris Grech to voice their support in his Sunday trading battle are a clear indication that the current laws are completely out of touch with today's way of life, says the Bay Street chief.
He admits that most people accept the laws, which date back to 1958, need amending; the delicate issue is just how far to change them.
"Some amendments have been made, but we are still far from what is needed," he says. "There have been changes in consumers' needs, with much more emphasis now being placed on leisure, while Malta has also changed in its bid to attract different niches of tourism. Retail must reflect these different trends."
Mr Grech, who stresses that he became the Sunday shopping campaigner by default, but admits he will pursue the battle now it is underway, believes the current restrictive laws are damaging.
"If we retain these protection policies it will just hinder things," he says. "We have all this talk about liberalisation and globalisation, yet these antiquated laws are still in place."
He stresses that he is willing to sit round the table with the Association of General Retailers and Traders, which has adopted an anti-Sunday shopping stand, and believes a referendum on the issue could be averted.
"Of course we are willing to compromise," he says. "We are not saying let's have a seven-day week and we agree with keeping Sunday special, but we need to discuss the issue of offering services to the community. While I am sure the GRTU's concerns are very genuine, we do need to move in the direction that is being taken abroad."
Mr Grech also sees it as very unfair to use the "immoral" issue in the Sunday trading argument.
"I think this is patronising," he says. "People are fully capable of deciding how they want to spend their Sundays."
Challenged on whether Sunday opening would force small retailers to have to open to compete, Mr Grech argues that "nobody is being forced into anything".
"They can choose whether to open or not," he says. "It is no different from the current argument, by which the present laws are dictating that we cannot open. You have to let the market forces decide. You cannot keep up the protectionist approach which imposes a lifestyle on the people."
He also believes that the laws need to be sensitive to the needs of the big investors.
"We can't have these huge new projects and hotel complexes coming on line and cruisers entering our port, to find no shops open," he says. "After all, people are investing millions in projects and employing thousands of people. Can we really expect a venture like the Cottonera project to function under the current laws?"
And does he accept that his competitors currently have a disadvantage in the Sunday trading battle, since Bay Street is the only shopping centre opening?
"What we want is to operate on a completely fair playing field," he answers. "We feel that the law is wrong at present and we sympathise with all the other shops and the citizens."
He stresses that he has been approached by many of these shops and complexes and has made it clear he will back them.
"We have made a commitment to getting the laws changed and we will not back down now," he says.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt