Saturday, 28 September 2013

French trade unions' opposition to sunday working: a throwback to the 19th century?

A Sephora cosmetics outlet in Paris
The Luddites were an organisation of 19th century English textile workers who opposed the introduction of newly-invented machines that were designed to improve output and reduce labour costs. The fors and againsts of their struggle have been the subject of much debate ever since, but they are still held up today as an example of either progress-stopping King Canute-style reactionaries or working class heroes, depending on one's point of view.

So what, in that context, are we to make of the current dispute which is pitting French trade unions against their chain store employers? The unions and Clic-C, their representative body in the chain store sector, have been taking legal action against a number of them in an effort to stop them opening on Sundays and late in the evening during the week on the grounds that the practice is damaging to workers' health and represents an erosion of their rights. The companies involved work in industries such as food supermarkets, do-it-yourself, furniture, luxury goods shops, and finance. They include Monoprix, Leroy Merlin, Castorama, Sephora, Bricorama, Apple, Uniqlo, Franprix, Abercrombie & Fitch and Marionnaud. Most industries in France are forced to close on Sundays, with the exception of those who work in tourism, transport and a few others.

Courts have come down in favour of the unions in many cases, and the chain stores concerned have been forbidden by judges to open on Sundays, with the penalty for not obeying being a fine of €120,000 per outlet for each Sunday worked.

But more and more of them have announced that they are lodging appeals and shall open on Sundays despite the ban, saying that not doing so would result in revenue losses of up to 25% and thousands of staff layoffs. They argue that most staff members are not obliged to work on Sundays and that those who do are volunteers.

This is borne out to some degree by the workers themselves, some of whom have held demonstrations in front of local prefectures over the last few days to protest both the unions' decision to have Sunday opening banned by the courts and the laws which govern it. Workers say that a ban would cost them anything up to 10% of their take-home pay, that they would lose bonuses for working on Sundays and that part-time workers who work on Sunday only would quite simply lose their jobs. Consumer organisations are also contesting the ban.

Both the workers and the consumer organisations are right, and for many reasons. The historical reason for banning work on Sundays was that workers used to work anything up to 80 hours a week over 7 days 200 years ago, often in very hard conditions. The ban was necessary and right at that time.

But the world has changed since those dark days. Whereas many women did not work 60 years ago and could thus do the shopping and deal with other chores, most families today need both parents to work in order to make ends meet, with the result that they have precious little time left at the end of the day to do their shopping and buy furniture, D-I-Y materials and other items.

Also, banning Sunday trading heavily penalises the tourism sector, as many tourists are used to being able to shop on Sundays in their own countries. That is why deluxe stores in Paris and other major cities are also to defy the ban, claiming that Sunday opening would create 5000 jobs in Paris alone. Supermarket chain store Monoprix is continuing to defy a ban on evening opening and claims that if they shut earlier they would be forced to shed 1500 jobs, again, in Paris alone.

From a wider perspective, France currently has the highest unemployment levels ever seen during the Fifth Republic, family incomes are under a sustained tax attack from the government, and the prospect of losing even more jobs for these reasons is therefore a highly unpalatable one.

French trade unions are antediluvian in nature. They are living in another era and their actions are based on ideological principles that are morally indefensible. The sad spectacle of unions attempting to all intents and purposes to get people thrown out of jobs and into the unemployment queue during the worst economic crisis the country has seen since the oil crisis in Seventies is an absurd and unedifying one. They deserve to fail, and fail they shall once the government finally gets off its backside and the fence and modernises the country's outdated Sunday trading laws.


(Update: The only sizeable trade union to support Sunday trading is the CFCT, whose representative for the Paris outlets of the home improvement and gardening chain store Leroy Merlin - Jean-Marc Cicuto - says today that he supports the company's decision to defy the law and open on Sundays. He adds that "95% of Leroy Merlin staff in the Paris area are in favour of working on Sunday.")


  1. I'm fine with shops not being open all day on Sundays, fine, but they should at least be allowed to open in the mornings if they'd like and stay open late during the rest of the week. Let the people work for heaven sake!

    1. Hi Sara, and that's an interesting idea. Nobody here in France has suggested it as far as I know. So you're talking about a tradeoff between uncontrolled working hours and satisfying the public. Excellent idea!

      But as someone who doesn't like getting up early how about if you swopped Sunday mornings for Sunday afternoons? ;)

  2. It's a bit late, but how refreshing to read this. The argument that shocked me the most was "but if the shops open on Sunday, people won't shop on Monday....". And to think that certain unions defended their opposition on the principle that Dimanche is a religious day....