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Controversy is raging over whether Swiss shops should be allowed to stay open longer to help combat the financial crisis and bolster the flagging tourism industry.

Sunday shopping in particular is still frowned upon in many parts of Switzerland. Proposals to change the situation have met with stiff opposition from the unions.

Economic forecasts for Switzerland have been glum in the past months, with reports of falling exports and a stagnating economy.

The government's solution to the current financial crisis has been to sign off three stimulus packages tackling unemployment and promoting investments.

Tourism, a major source of income for the country, is also suffering as foreign visitors stay away. The head of Switzerland Tourism, Jürg Schmid, has been quoted in a recent newspaper interview as saying that hotel turnover could drop by as much as ten per cent in 2010 and overnight stays by seven per cent.

"To save tourism in Switzerland, we need to liberalise trade and also open shops on Sundays when there is a big influx of visitors to cities," Schmid said.

The suggestion, which has been raised before and has the support of the business world, is not popular among the left and the unions.

"What sense does it make to exploit employees and make them work on Sundays, only because this measure could – it still needs to be proven – help boost the Swiss economy?" said Doris Bianchi, of Switzerland's largest union, the Swiss Trade Union Federation.

Law mishmash

The situation is not helped by the fact that while there is a federal law on the matter, the Swiss system of direct democracy means that each of the country's 26 canton has its own, varying, regulations as well.

In 2005 the Swiss narrowly approved an amendment to the federal labour law aimed at allowing Sunday trading at the country's main railway stations and airports.

Two years later parliament permitted shops to open on Sundays up to four times a year. But traders have to prove that there is a pressing need for their services before they may temporarily infringe the principle of "the day of rest".

Cantonal regulations for midweek opening hours are also not uniform. To combat this, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco), earlier this year announced that it wanted to ban newspaper kiosks and petrol stations from selling certain foodstuffs between 1am and 5am.

This practice has been going on in Zurich for ten years, but Seco says it breaks federal labour law. The decision has caused an outcry.

24-hour shopping

A committee of centre-right politicians, led by Christian Lüscher, has already collected almost 27,000 signatures calling for petrol stations to be allowed to sell food all day. The issue is also set to debated in parliament in the near future.

"The practice responds to a real need on the part of consumers. Also, in a market economy one has to allow the laws of supply and demand to decide whether something is necessary or not," Lüscher told swissinfo.ch.

"It concerns the right of city dwellers to be able to buy what they need 24 hours a day, which is already the case in many other countries," he added.

Zurich is also leading the way with another project, which will run from October to December, allowing traders to stay open until 8pm on Saturdays.

"In tourist regions Sunday and evening shopping, especially in summer, is a very important factor in the face of international competition and creates a more lively atmosphere," Frank Bumann, head of communications at Zurich Tourism, told swissinfo.ch.

Paying the price

But unions fear that workers will have to pay the price for increased opening hours.

Bianchi from the Trade Union Federation says that the law states that Sunday working is voluntary, but often employees fear losing their jobs if they do not agree.

"Furthermore, in these lean times, if people spend their money on Sundays, they won't do so on Mondays. It's not even clear whether this liberalisation will encourage consumption and boost the economy," she said.

For unions, work-free Sundays are an important social landmark, whereas for the Christian community the day should still be reserved for religion and family. Many people still believe that Sundays should still be a day of rest.

In any case, it should be down to individual, Bianchi says. "In a society the jobless rate puts workers in a position of dependency, it still needs to be made clear whether this free choice really exists," she said.

Stefania Summermatter, swissinfo.ch (Translated from Italian by Isobel Leybold-Johnson)

Other European countries

Sunday trading regulations in the European Union are diverse and are based on national laws.

Sweden was the pioneer in Sunday trading legislation. Since 1972 all shops have been able to stay open every day from 5am to midnight.

The Czech Republic, Ireland and Hungary have unlimited opening hours on Sundays.

In Spain and Britain, authorisation depends on the size of the shop, with the larger ones subject to stricter regulations.

Italy has more restrictive rules as shops are only allowed to open on 13 Sundays a year, including the eight leading up to Christmas.



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