Not until you drop: many an expat has arrived in Switzerland to find, to their astonishment, the shops close their doors at 16:00 on Saturdays, and as for Sundays--well, forget it. Supporters of longer trading hours face stiff opposition, but in a stagnating economy is business winning the argument?

AuteurConstable, Lynne


The vote by citizens of Canton Fribourg last September not to extend Saturday shop opening hours by an hour to 17:00 has highlighted once more the strong feelings aroused by this long-standing battle--and the difference of opinion has made unlikely bedfellows of those who would like to see the status quo maintained.

The labour unions have long resisted any relaxation of the rules and indeed Unia, the largest trade union in Switzerland and responsible for the service sector, believes that opening times are already too liberal. In that, it is in agreement with most conservative and religious groups, which argue that traditional family life is already under threat by evening and weekend working.

On the other side of the fence, a combination of retailers, politicians and tourist organisations says liberalising the law will boost business--and therefore the economy.

Following the herd

It might appear the general European trend towards longer opening hours, seen over the past 10 years, is inevitable in Switzerland too. Certainly, one of the arguments is that in a recessionary climate, anything promoting trade can be only beneficial.

"In economically difficult times it is important to improve the basic conditions of trade and enterprise, rather than put obstacles in the way," says IG Freiheit, a non-political organisation founded in 2006 that campaigns for less state regulation in everyday life.

The Swiss tourism industry also thinks the economy, and in particular city tourism, would be boosted by liberalising shop opening times and has long campaigned for an extension of trading hours in cities, train stations and airports. However, Unia spokesperson Mattia Mandaglio disagrees: "Longer trading hours have no benefits for the Swiss economy. The economic revenues, both for the shops as well as for the economy, are marginal."

The federal law governs workers' rights and hours of work, and generally prohibits the employment of staff on Sundays, with the exceptions of small family businesses, shops in certain tourist areas, major train stations and airports. This provision was adopted in a 2005 popular referendum--and was opposed by trade unions and conservative Christian groups. Cantons may also allow shops to open up to four Sundays a year, but it is discretionary and shops must prove there's a pressing need.

Creating consumer confusion

This highlights the contradictions of the law: the Swiss system of direct democracy means...

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