Fed-up Greeks fight Sunday shopping plans

ATHENS, Attica - A new attempt in Greece to open up shops on Sunday in order to fight recession and joblessness has run into opposition from an unlikely alliance of clerics, unionists and Athens shop-owners themselves.

At present, most shops in Greece's main cities remain closed on Sundays, except for major shopping malls, street kiosks and a small number of pharmacies.

An exception is made for Sundays around Christmas and during the sales season, when trade is at its busiest.

And most Athens trade groups would like to leave it at that.

But the conservative-led government has submitted a bill to parliament offering an "optional" framework of seven shopping Sundays a year "plus any additional Sundays decided by local authorities."

The government believes that such a move "promotes free competition and is compatible with EU initiatives to boost small business."

But the Athens trade association last week accused the government of taking decisions "without consulting the trade sector".

Successive Greek governments have been trying to increase the number of working Sundays since at least 2005, years before the economic crisis engulfed the country.

And the latest government initiative comes with public resentment high after four years of austerity measures which have seen the country suffer years of recession while unemployment has soared to a record 27 per cent.

State cutbacks prescribed by Greece's international creditors, the EU and IMF, in return for 240 billion euros (US$313 billion) in credits have taken their toll on the Greek population.

Along with their bailout, the creditors have also urged Athens to liberalise Greece's traditionally closed economy. The push to liberalise Sunday opening hours comes as part of that effort.

But there has been resistance to change from many professional classes, from lawyers and notaries to freighters and taxi drivers seeking to guard long-held privileges.

Shop-owners say relacing the Sunday rules would actually penalise the dwindling number of small family-run businesses who cannot afford to hire extra help for the weekend, while any gain would be small owing to the recession-hit incomes across the country.

"You want to be done with us," the head of the general association of Greek artisans, George Kavvathas, told the government.

"Are 120,000 store closures over the last three years not enough?" he asked.

The association of private employees has called the government's Sunday plans a "virtual reality".

"We have 1.5 million unemployed in the sector and 35 per cent of store staff have not been paid in months," said the association's head Thanos Vassilipoulos.

Communist union PAME is organising a protest on the issue this week.

"Eliminating the Sunday break will affect all sectors linked to trade and will soon be extended to the entire working class," the union said.

"This is a demand by major business groups...who want to increase their profits and the exploitation of workers," it said.

In contrast, larger chains have welcomed the move which they say will boost tourism jobs.

But not only unions will be weighing on lawmakers.

The bishop of Piraeus, Greece's main port, has threatened to excommunicate any deputy who approves the Sunday bill.

"This is a casus belli for the Orthodox Church of Greece," said Bishop Seraphim, who is known for his hard positions.

"Any deputies who back this will cease to have any relations with the Piraeus bishopric because they will have stepped on the law of God," he added.

The head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos, had also condemned similar measures proposed last year.

"Life is not just numbers. All people need to rest," Ieronymos said then.