Sunday trading: The counter culture
There are two ways of viewing the government’s use of emergency legislation to extend Sunday trading throughout the Olympics.
One way is is that the Sunday Trading (London Olympic and Paralympic Games) Bill, which will temporarily suspend trading laws for the biggest retailers during the games, is a betrayal of the spirit of the Olympics.
The other is that it is a diabolical assault on the rights of some of the lowest paid workers in Britain.
A report by the Fair Pay Network in January revealed how most employees of the four big retailers are living on ‘poverty’ wages while executive pay and supermarket profits have sky-rocketed. And statistics show they feel under increasing pressure to work more hours too.
During the second reading of the bill in the Lords, Labour peer, Lord Judd said, “I find it rather high-handed to say that “Of course the person has the right to opt-out”. Surely it should be about who wants to opt in? I suggest there will be all sorts of pressures, one way or another, for workers to comply”.
A source close to the Conservative party told me how desperate texts were sent from whips in a bid to prevent Tory peers voting with the opposition benches against the bill, fearing an attack from Labour on the right.
“Cameron thought a Labour plot had been hatched to outflank them on Sunday trading. So there was a mass text sent out to Tory peers, instructing them to vote with the government” the source revealed.
And the prime minister had some reason to worry at least. The Keep Sunday Special campaign later condemned the move as part of an “anti-social agenda”
They said, “David Cameron came into government promising to make this country the most family friendly in Europe. But over one million families have at least one parent working both weekend days. They have little time to spend with their children when they’re not at school.”
“Why make life tougher for our local communities? Or does the Big Society only belong to Big Business?”
They are not alone in their concerns. A survey conducted in March of over 20,000 members of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw), the UK’s fourth biggest and fastest growing trade union, found that 77 per cent of their members opposed suspension of Sunday trading laws throughout the Olympics, with just 12 per cent in favour.
A similar survey conducted by Usdaw in 2011 revealed nearly half of members have caring responsibilities for children or the elderly, which makes it even harder to work on a Sunday.
Lord Judd said, “It seems rather difficult to accept that we go ahead with this when almost 90 per cent of shop workers say they do not want it”.
A GFK/NOP survey carried out in 2010 found that 89 per cent of the public were also opposed to relaxing the Sunday trading laws. Doesn’t this bring into question the governments pursuance of a policy which seems to side with the interests of big business against the interests of families?
Despite the social damage that will inevitably be caused, the government still hasn’t produced an estimate of the economic benefits that temporary liberalisation will bring. Indeed, if the issue of commercial opportunities was such a massive consideration, why on earth was it left until this years budget to be aired?
Given the scale of public opposition to the provision, it’s interesting to imagine where the inspiration for the emergency legislation was drawn from.
Did it come from the larger official merchandising outlets in the Olympic park? Or was it from Westfield in Stratford and the four big supermarkets?
Regardless, to say that for all sorts of pressing commercial concerns that a whole section of the population are to have less freedom than usual seems downright wrong. Ultimately, the Tory government’s position isn’t just a betrayal of Conservatives who wish to keep Sunday special.
What we are really beginning to see is the echo of a very nasty tradition in the use of the games. A tradition we first saw unfolding in China, where there are certainly no restrictions on the abuse of workers by the market and the state.
It’s part of the Tories increasingly visible strategy to build the recovery on the backs of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
That’s a pretty poisonous message to send out to the rest of the world, don’t you think?