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Germany

High Court to Decide If Germans Can Shop on Sundays

The laws governing shop opening hours in Germany are strict. One large retailer is trying to change that, taking its fight to the country's highest court.

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Shopping late into the night and on Sundays is a luxury most Germans have not experienced.

Tales of supermarkets open twenty-four hours a day are common in the United States, but they are often met with looks of wonder in Germany, where restrictive laws limit the number of hours and the days shops are allowed to remain open. Now, a large German retailer, Kaufhof, is taking its battle to change those laws to the country's highest court. But it faces strong opposition from church groups, labor unions, and small mom-and-pop retailers.

Showdown in federal court

Oral arguments began at the federal court in Karlsruhe on Tuesday in the case of Kaufhof Warenhaus AG vs. the government. In short, the debate centers around the sanctity of the worker's day of rest and what constitutes fair competition.

The lawyer representing the Kaufhof Warenhaus AG, Friedhelm Hufen, argued that the laws as they stand create an atmosphere of unfair competition because of the many exceptions which allow certain shops, for example those located in gas stations or near vacation destinations, to remain open later and on Sundays.

Hufen said changing the law would be a "meaningful symbol that Germany is really serious about reform." The regulations hampered German retailers’ ability to compete in a global business environment, he said, adding that laws already on the books which limit the number of hours an employee can work per week provide protection enough.

But there are many who think the law is fine as is. Rudolf Anzinger, a state secretary in the federal economics ministry, said, "It won't surprise anyone that the federal government is of the opinion that the laws governing the opening hours of shops are constitutional.....the law is there for the protection of workers, and there is a strong basis for that."

Provoking a fight

The management at Kaufhof provoked a fight in 1999, when it opened a large store located on Berlin's Alexanderplatz on Sundays. The store used a loophole in the city's law which allows shops to sell "souvenirs" on Sunday. It simply relabeled much of its merchandise as souvenirs.

A state court soon put an end to the practice, prompting the company to appeal to a higher court. A decision in the case could take up to three months, and it will have wide-reaching implications for the German retail industry.

A chorus of nay-sayers

Kaufhof is not alone in its struggle to change the opening hours laws. The Association of German Industry and Chambers of Congress and the Institute for Economic Research would also like to see the law amended. They have met with some success. In June of this year, opening hours were extended on Saturdays by four hours, from 4 to 8 p.m. However, there are those who have vowed not to let the changes go one step further.

Among those opposing further change are church organizations. Wolfgang Rüfner, a Catholic bishop, said the court should think long and hard about what they would be doing if they decide to let shops open their doors on Sundays. He pointed to the importance of the traditional “day of rest.”

State Secretary Anzinger also says workers would suffer, saying the laws restricting the number of hours a shopkeeper is allowed to work are not strong enough.

"They only regulate the number of hours, but not when the working hours take place." For retail workers, many of whom are women, a change could significantly impact on time with the family, he said. Verdi, one of Germany's largest unions, sees things much the same way.

Smaller shopkeepers also fear that they will suffer if opening hours are extended, saying it will benefit larger retailers and could drive them out of business.

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