Let businessmen determine opening hours 'to reflect reality'

Regulations determining the days and hours shops can open for business do not reflect today's realities and are more reminiscent of a “siege economy”, according to the Consumers' Association.

Reacting to a legal notice published last week banning shops from opening on Good Friday, association president Benny Borg Bonello said the Maltese way of life had changed radically and, with more working couples, there was less time to shop. This made restricted shopping hours not only inconvenient for customers but also restricted shop owners from making the most of their investment.

The association believes opening hours should be left to the businessman. “The state should only interfere if such opening hours are really causing a grave inconvenience to the public,” Mr Borg Bonello said.

The association accused the Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises – GRTU, which sparked this controversy after it called on the government to stop Lidl Supermarket from opening on Good Friday, of hampering businesses' competitive edge.

The Parliamentary Secretary for SMEs, Jason Azzopardi, who issued the legal notice with urgency, defended his decision and said employee interests were the principal reason. It was not motivated by reasons of religion or fair competition. Asked why the amendment was issued with such alacrity, Dr Azzopardi said the government had just noticed a “loophole” in the law that Good Friday could be interpreted as any other public holiday.

He explained that, for the third consecutive year, the Finance Ministry had exempted all shops from the prohibition of not opening for trade on Easter Sunday. Had the reason behind the legal notice been just one of a religious nature, then the government would have banned sales also on Easter Sunday as this was the most important feast for Christians.

Dr Azzopardi said employees had commended the government's decision saying the order secured them some time with their families.

GRTU director general Vince Farrugia reiterated his stand and said the order was necessary to ensure employees were not forced to work on Good Friday.

Mr Farrugia demanded the law be changed “so that Good Friday remains as it has always been: a special holy day and a family day for all”.

Insisting the legal notice had not been issued for religious reasons only, Mr Farrugia said Malta happened to be a Christian country. Had it been Muslim, he said, the country would have had to abide by a Muslim calendar.

Three years ago, the GRTU had asked the Ministry to issue notices authorising shops and other retail outlets, including pharmacies, to open on Good Friday, March 21, as well as Sunday, March 16, and March 19, a public holiday. With the general election falling on March 8, the GRTU had said consumers had delayed their pre-Easter shopping. It had said at the time: “Given the particular circumstances and with two public holidays falling in the last week before Easter Sunday, the request is even more reasonable.” Mr Farrugia insisted the issue raised in 2008 was different, adding the cost of keeping supermarkets closed on all those days was huge. A compromise between consumers and retailers had been reached and shops had opened till noon.

When asked for a copy of the survey the GRTU said it had carried out among a “wide cross section of retailers”, which concluded the majority of merchants believed Good Friday should remain “a special one”, Mr Farrugia said this was an internal study. He said even people with no religious beliefs had contacted him questioning “why Malta should sell its traditions cheaply because someone from abroad wants to drink beer or buy a tin of tuna on Good Friday”.

Mr Farrugia described the situation as “a minor issue” and accused the media of “whipping a dead corpse”.

The president of the Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry, Tancred Tabone too played down the matter and said nobody was interested in the issue anymore.

“Good Friday has come and gone,” he said, adding he had no comment to make about the legal notice in question.

Mr Tabone said it was “a waste of time and energy” and “nobody is interested in yesterday's news”.

published in the Times of Malta of the 27th April 2011