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Labour laws questioned as 24-hour shops shut

The Swiss court ruling found goods sold in petrol station shops were not "essentials"


A court ruling upholding a ban on 24-hour opening hours at petrol station shops has raised questions about Switzerland’s strict Sunday and evening labour laws.

For the past two years, seven petrol stations in canton Zurich have been defying a recently introduced law on late-night trading by opening their shops from 1-5am.

But no longer. In July the Federal Court upheld a general ban on opening shops at petrol stations late at night, ruling that there could be no exceptions.

Although canton Zurich tolerated the stations’ late-night shopping hours, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs moved for the petrol station shops to be shut at night, pointing to the ban on late-night work introduced in 2008.

Three BP petrol stations then appealed against the decision. The motion was rejected by the Federal Administrative Court in October 2009 and then again by the Federal Court last month.

In Switzerland, labour law states that work at night and on Sunday is only allowed if it is "essential". It also must remain the exception, not the rule.

In making its decision, the Federal Court found that the products sold in petrol station shops were not “necessities”. While service station shops must be closed from 1-5am, the tills for manning petrol pumps and on-site cafes are legally exempt and can stay open throughout the night. Thus ensuring passing motorists have access to the minimum fuel, food and drink.

According to Anne Rubin, spokeswoman for the union Unia, the law is very important. "It sends a clear signal to the big supermarkets that lean towards wanting to extend their opening hours, and [strikes] against the political right’s desire for a society where consumer freedom comes before protecting workers’ health."

“Miserable wages”

The Federal Court ruling is a clear indication that consumers don’t need to be able to buy frozen food, a postcard or a book at night.

But Federal Court media officer Sabina Motta notes that the companies involved were upset by the decision. Particularly as staff who were already working all night at the petrol station and the cafe were no longer permitted to sell goods in the shop.

"The opening of mini-supermarkets in service stations would require more employees. More staff would be needed to work at night, for miserable wages,” says Rubin. “Because shop worker wages are very low, and employees are often hired part-time, and have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.”

But Christian Lüscher, a Liberal party parliamentarian, argues that opening shops from 1-5am would not require more staff, just more diverse tasks for employees.

"The Federal Court decision reaffirms the need for my parliamentary initiative, launched in 2009 [for flexibility in opening hours of petrol station shops]. It is not up to the government to define consumer needs," he told

"The state should not interfere with the freedom of consumer choice. If they so desire, consumers should be able to buy carrots or a salad [in a petrol station shop] instead of a stale coffee or greasy sandwich that’s for sale in petrol station cafés.”

It is a view shared by Gregor Rutz, secretary-general of an association campaigning for greater freedom in the community, who last year launched a petition for the 24-hour opening of service station shops. His motion attracted 26,825 signatures in support.

European issue

Swinging between the two sides of consumer choice versus worker protection, the ban has renewed the debate on the issue of late night workers. It’s a discussion that is also taking place outside Switzerland.

A report completed this summer by the French economic, social and environmental council points to a number of studies which show the negative health impact of prolonged exposure to night work.

Yet in many European countries, the number of people working at night is growing, particularly in Germany and France where the law governing night work is less restrictive than in Switzerland.

According to the latest survey from the European Foundation in Dublin of 31 European countries, carried out in 2007, night shift staff account for between 18 and 24 per cent of employees. In Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Britain, nearly one in five employed people do some night shift work.

While some jobs such as hospital workers or police are essential, others, particularly in shops, are more questionable. The debate should take into account the changing pace of society and changing consumer habits, which tend to be more fragmented, while also preserving the health and social life of workers.

Laureline Duvillard, (Translated from French by Jessica Dacey)

Unusual working hours in Switzerland

In Switzerland, working on Sunday and at night (11pm-6am) is not allowed. Exemptions can be granted in certain cases, for example if technical or economic reasons mean working at these times is necessary. But in these cases, the hours for night work can only be extended to between 11pm-midnight and 5-6am.

In its July 2010 ruling on petrol stations, the Federal Court said work at petrol station shops was not allowed between 1-5am.

Working on Sunday is only allowed four times a year, if there is no justification for doing so.

Working at night or on Sundays has to be compensated with extra money and time off.

Only a government office can authorise working regularly or periodically on Sundays and at night. However, if it is a temporary measure cantonal authorities take matters into their own hands.

On November 27, 2005 Swiss agreed that shops could open on Sundays in big railway stations and airports.

According to a Federal Statistics Office survey of the working population in 2009 among 3,400 employees, 418 (12%) worked on Sundays and 206 (6%) at night.

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Shops in petrol stations

Half of petrol stations run by AVIA, BP, Shell and Tamoil - 1,316 - are equipped with a shop, according to the petrol union.

71% of petrol sales were made in stations with a shop.

Petrol stations have increasingly bigger sales area.

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