21 27 February 2001
The great Sunday debate
However much they might try to distance themselves from the issue, Vince Farrugia and Chris Grech have undoubtedly emerged as the two main protagonists of the Sunday shopping debate. Here they both outline their main arguments
The economic argument
Research in the UK for the period between 1992 and 1998, covering the first five years of the legalisation of Sunday trading, prove that Sunday shopping simply does not pay. The report "The Changing Nature of Sunday" (available from Jubilee House, 3 Hooper Street, Cambridge CB1, 2NZ) gives these figures:
1.3million more men and women 'usually or sometime worked on a Sunday in 1998 than in 1992 (an increase of 16 per cent), But the latest research available reveals that only 6.4 per cent of all weekly retail spending takes place on a Sunday, compared with 20.7 per cent on Saturdays and 23.3 per cent on Fridays.
34 per cent of lone mothers with dependent offspring 'usually or sometimes work on Sundays, leaving an estimated half a million children without the company of their parent on that day.
The changes in Sunday life-style have resulted in the amount of free time enjoyed by people at the weekend decreasing by 5.3 per cent while increasing by 26.8 per cent during the week.
As far back as 1996 the Pay and Benefits Bulletin reported that half the organisations it has surveyed had revised their contracts of employment for new starters making Sunday part of the normal week.
Not only shop workers have been affected by the Sunday Trading Act 1994 (which allowed supermarkets and stores to open for six hours on a Sunday). Transport workers, distribution workers, street cleaners and parking attendants have been drawn into the action.
As predicted, many shop owners trading for an extra day by a high proportion of large retailers has contributed to the decline in the number of smaller shops.
Another prediction, that Sunday trading would not generate higher weekly spending but would merely rearrange the same level of expenditure, has proved to be true.
While the volume of shopping on a Sunday has steadily increased, sales and profits have lagged behind. In 1998 the average increase in sales was a mere 2.58 per cent, the lowest recorded since surveys began in 1994.
Very few people carry out their main weekly shopping on a Sunday. Average expenditure is £28.68 and surveys point to the fact that most Sunday shopping is aimed at purchasing items forgotten during the week.
Sunday opening has encouraged multiple chain stores to expand further. This has done nothing for competitiveness and has not led to lower prices, as promised.
These arguments are even more valid for Malta, since the Maltese market is a closed market. There is no flow of consumers moving in only for the Sunday. Tourists stay in Malta for an average of nine nights and they have more than enough time to do their shopping. Furthermore, the Shopping Hours Act provides all the options necessary so that tourists are served. The only exception is for groceries since the approach has steadfastly been to encourage tourists to frequent catering establishments on Sundays, rather than relying on self-catering.
Sunday shopping is a field day for part-timers who work elsewhere during the rest of the week and open shop only on Sundays - thus stealing the market from underneath the professional retailers' feet who, unable to sustain a regular seven day week, will eventually close on Sundays. The argument that retailers may close on another day of the week is not valid since no retailer abandons his Monday, Tuesday etc customers to gain Sunday customers. It's not even fair on consumers and it's bad business.
The argument that shop-owners should be given an option to open or not is also not valid. The best comparison is a football stadium. Once the front lines stand up, all other spectators will have to stand up too. It will happen with Sunday Trading. It is already happening after Bay Street shops were allowed to open.
Tax and other law evasion is rampant on Sunday since public sector employees responsible for such matters as VAT, Income Tax, Licenses, Health and Safety and consumer protection are not willing to work on Sundays and the excess cost would not be sanction anyway.
The social argument
The frenetic manner in which people are required to go about their employment in the year 2001 has a great social cost and those who are suffering really badly from the demands placed on adults in the work place are the children.
In Malta the only workers and self employed who have their rights for Sunday rest protected by law are those working in the Retail Trade. While the European Parliament and other strong pro-family pressure groups are elsewhere in Europe arguing in favour of a one shared day of rest for all the family, in Malta pressure is being maintained for the removal of these rights from those who have it rather than extending this right to others.
The vast majority of owners of retail outlets large and small do not want to work on Sunday. Workers may be forced for some time but they would eventually change jobs. Proprietors would then have to decide whether to open or abandon. Recent surveys in Italy show that the vast majority of small retailers regret the decision recently taken by the authorities to allow Sunday Shopping.
Surveys have shown that the main shopping days in Malta are Friday and Saturday. The demand for Sunday shopping is being created by interested parties who are seeking means to sustain their excessive investment in an already saturated economic sector that enjoys very low return on investment.
The environmental argument
Most shopping centres in Malta are in the city core. Most historic buildings and sites are also in the city core. Shops are too close to neighbourhoods. The one-day relief from the noise of shops, with allied issues like parking, traffic deliveries etc is good for the neighbourhood and the environment.
Surveys in UK city centres prove that without the one-day break, shopping centre environments suffer a highly disproportional negative effect.
Relationships matter more than money. It is not true that on an island where shops are everywhere and shopping hours extend from 4.00am to 7.00pm six days a week, with an option for extension one-day a week for up to 10.00pm that the customer is not being adequately served.
What shop owners and their employees now seek is the comprehension and solidarity from consumers in protection of their right for a regular shared day of rest - for them and their family.
The retail industry in Malta must reflect today's way of life and this should see Sunday depicted as a day of leisure rather than a day of rest, according to Bay Street chief and self-appointed Sunday trading campaigner, Chris Grech.
Mr Grech explains that he hopes the Sunday trading battle can be resolved through compromise, but made it clear he had no qualms about pushing for a referendum on the issue.
"There have been changes in consumers' needs and no one is providing them with a voice," he said. "Today the retail, leisure and entertainment sectors co-exist and our laws need updating to take this into account."
Asked whether he felt that pushing for a referendum would put him on a collision course with the government, which has made it clear it Sunday trading will remain tightly controlled in its planned changes to legislation, Mr Grech countered that he believed it was healthy for different ideas and opinions to be discussed.
"The government has a difficult brief, it is not surprising that it is currently treading carefully," Mr Grech explains. "But it is important that the public's point of view is relayed. We have been inundated with thousands of people supporting us - people who want to be free to choose how to spend their Sunday."
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 that 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."
"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.