Sunday, 2 September 2012

Sunday Trading Laws - Dissecting the conservative Medusa

This is a response to the article "Sunday trading laws protect the family and civil society. Libertarians should not do away with them." by Thomas Byrne (aka @ByrneToff), which appeared on Conservative Home earlier today.

Why do Sunday Trading Laws exist?

Thomas offers broadly three strands of argument for why the Sunday Trading Laws exist. The first is historical, cultural and religious, and promulgates this idea that protecting Sundays from work strengthens the family unit. The second is couched in the language of employment rights, and protecting employees from being exploited by large retail outlets insisting they work long weeks. The third is couched in the idea that free trading hours only help oligarchical supermarkets and harm small businesses, who need protected.

Let's look at those arguments in turn:

1. History, Culture, Religion, the Family

The first argument we get opens as follows:

"To [relax Sunday Trading Laws] wouldn't be a declaration of war upon Christianity, the damage has been done there by the changes in 1994. This would stick up two fingers to wider society and the soft Christian outlook that they hold"

This employs the following suppositions. First, it claims that the 1994 reforms (which allowed shops to trade on Sundays, but restricted larger outlets to only 6 hours of trading) were a "declaration of war upon Christianity". Without wishing to be too curt, that is drivel. Christianity was not undermined by allowing individuals to buy and sell things on a Sunday. Let's be clear what we're talking about here. At the absolute maximum, we are talking about an erosion in the influence of Christianity on the laws of the state. The ideas of Christianity, and the pursuit of religious ends by Christian individuals and Christian communities was somehow undermined by permitting people to trade on a Sunday is totally unsubstantiated.

For this critique to be a valid one, therefore, references to Christianity, must refer to the influence of Christianity on the law and the state in shaping society. But then Thomas and others have to explain why it is morally legitimate for Christianity to do this, but not any other belief system. Why should trade be prohibited or heavily restricted on a Sunday because it's the Christian Sabbath, but not on Saturdays for the Jewish Sabbath, or Fridays for the Islamic day of rest and prayer? What is so special about Christianity.

We get an attempt at an answer when he says that relaxing Sunday Trading Laws would "[stick] up... two fingers to wider society and the soft Christian outlook that they hold". There are two problems with this. Firstly, it is simply categorically not true that "wider society" holds a "soft Christian outlook". Wider society is not a homogenous or contiguous group with one set of values as to how families should operate, when they should work, when they should rest, and what constitutes positive collective activity.

On the particulars, this assertion is empirically untrue. Only a slender majority of the English and Welsh population identify as Christian (circa 53.48%) and even then, only 29% of the population consider themselves to be "religious". That isn't evidence of a "soft Christian outlook". That's evidence of a declining religious/Christian outlook in our society, and a small minority of our society considering values exclusive to religion playing in any sense an important part of the way we conduct our affairs with other people.

But let us assume for a minute that we were in a society in which the overwhelming majority of the population went to church every Sunday, held sincerely the view that trading on the Sabbath was morally wrong and that people should spend Sundays with their families. Let's say then, that we have a Sunday Trading Law. Is it then legitimate for them to insist that nobody in their society can say "oh my God" or "Jesus Christ" because in a "Christian worldview" or "Christian outlook" these things constitute blasphemy? Is it then legitimate for that group to insist that no one in that society may engage in a homosexual relationship, since that contradicts their historical "soft Christian outlook"?

No. Religion does not command moral legitimacy over our laws simply because, historically, large sections of society have agreed with them. That it's the way it was always done does not mean that it's the way it should be. This is a classic example of the Hume's Guillotine. Religion needs more than prevalence to justify a special place in the law and the morality contained therein. The only legitimate presumption of all laws is that they should have a secular application. The only way you avoid imposing a morality on other people is to recognise that there is a plurality of views about what the family is and how it interacts with wider society.

Even if we think of Sunday as a secular universal day of rest, as Thomas would then like you to ponder, he casts implicit judgment about what families should be doing with this day of rest. This conforms to a historical and coercive idea of the family unit, how it functions, how the constituent parts interact. He hectors families who value different forms of "together time" than that which conforms to his world-view:

"There is a clear divide between the young and the old as to whether the current laws should stay the same as the invisible hand of business has crushed tradition. Some couples now see shopping at supermarkets as a leisure activity in itself. Has family time really been reduced to buying the latest games console because the state won’t grant them any time to form a real relationship with their children?"

The reality is that the family unit is a lot more complicated and a lot more plural than the traditional unit suggests. Some families have different commitments from others: some will value going shopping together, as a communal activity that they could not otherwise enjoy on other days when fitting them around their hectic weekday schedule and that busy Saturday taking kids to and from sporting activities or other events. Some families will value spending a cold, wet and rainy weekend in front of the television playing Wii Sports and watching Doctor Who, before choosing to amble out to Asda after 6pm to do a big shop that sets them up to make all the kids pack lunches the following week with fresh food.

What Thomas has to answer is why that choice by a family is any less legitimate than surrendering their already limited free time at other points in the week to a set of laws that are inconvenient for them, for a morality they do not share.

2. Employment rights, universal benefit/perk/quirk

Second, we've got this idea that relaxing Sunday Trading Laws is to "allow ourselves to capitulate entirely to [large employers'] needs and demands."

Further, we have this idea that:

"Sunday before 1994 was a day in which families were, for a while, set free from capitalism and were able to join together as a family, or as a community, knowing that they were all equally able to set aside their time for this task

...

The law was widely supported because it was a privilege that was universal.
...

What we have seen is Sunday slowly turned into just another day where the poor are forced to work and therefore forced away from their family and friends."

This is a spurious narrative. It runs three suppositions. Firstly, it supposes that there is a universal entitlement not to work on a Sunday. Secondly, it supposes that relaxing Sunday Trading laws forces people to work longer. Thirdly, it supposes that forcing the majority of people to take their time off on a Sunday is inherently more valuable than to let them take their time off at any other time.

So let's deal with these in turn.

Not everyone can choose not to work on a Sunday. For our society to function properly and productively we need people working all the time. Criminals don't refrain from crime on Sundays. Ill people don't refrain from dying on Sundays. Fires don't put themselves out on Sundays. Electricity doesn't produce itself unattended on Sundays. The essential and pleasurable services we all take for granted that make our weekends so enjoyable and entertaining all rely upon other people working during those times. To open the cinema for that family unit to do something fun together. To have that meal out to celebrate mum's birthday that everyone's been looking forward to. To buy that crate of lager at short notice from the local supermarket before multiple generations sit in front of the tele to watch the football, or the bottle or three of wine to take in while playing Trivial Pursuit after dinner.

Nurses, doctors, offshore workers, Christian religious leaders(!) and many other workers, including those in the service sector, are needed to work on Sundays. Hell, it even includes workers in small supermarket stores! The claim that this rigid week structure is somehow an ideological universal entitlement is wrong by any objective measure. You have to explain why it is that this "universal" value does not have to apply to those working in the service sector, small shops, and jobs not involving trade. Unless you can do that, you cannot say with a straight face that Sunday Trading Laws emancipate workers.

Secondly, the idea that relaxing Sunday Trading Laws necessarily forces people to work longer. Note the use of the word "force". Presumably that's why it's bad, right? Well this just isn't borne out in evidence. Workers are not "forced" to work on Sundays in Scotland. Indeed, when the Sunday Trading Laws were relaxed up here, specific protections were put in place so that it could not be insisted that someone on a standard weekday contract would also work on a Sunday. Further, there are specific statutory limits on the number of hours someone can be expected to work in their regular working week (48 hours) under EU legislation. The idea that relaxing Sunday Trading laws forces the poor back into a Victorian dystopia is perplexing.

In any case, those who work on Sundays at the moment work an atypical working week. They might be part-time staff. They might be young single parents who can only get childcare assistance from the rest of their family at the weekend, and need the extra hours to pay the bills and provide for their kids. Sunday work is freedom for them! It gives them the flexibility, and the choice, to participate in the workforce on terms closer to their optimal preference, in a mutually beneficial arrangement with their employers. The sort of people who currently work on a Sunday for a supermarket will, almost to a man, be grateful for the extra two hours pay they're going to get for their standard 8-hour shift. What they lose is two hours in the morning. They still have their evening to enjoy with their family. Their lives are far freer than, say, those who work the nightshift or an off-shore two-weeks-on two-weeks off arrangement in the North Sea's oil rigs.

If supermarkets or similar large stores need more employees to stay open on a Sunday for longer: good. There are lots of people looking for work right now. An 8-hour shift is far more attractive to someone living hand to mouth off the state than a 6-hour one. More people in employment is generally a good thing.

Third, this idea that Sunday is still a special case from the perspective of employment rights and that having to take your day off on Sunday is better. This has been demonstrated above to be false, given then wide variety of demographics, personal circumstances and personal preferences of workers, families and consumers alike.

If Thomas was serious about protecting employment rights and an enabling function to quality family time, he would instead endorse my proposal, and something I think should be Liberal Democrat policy. Abolish the standard working week. End once and for all the idea that the typical worker must work Monday to Friday/Saturday and taking Sunday off. Instead, create a statutory right to two days unpaid holiday for every five days worked. Give the employee a statutory right to fix one of those days to a day of the week of their choice. Then give the employer a statutory right to fix the other. In the event the employer declines that right, the employee can choose the second day.

That would be more of a universal right, more empowering for workers, and give them the opportunity to shape their working week around the specific requirements of their family. We don't need to appeal to history and pseudo-religious cultural values to protect the workforce from exploitation.

3. Protect small businesses

Simply put:
"The effect of dismantling the remaining trading laws would simply be to erode the protection that small business owners and their employees have to spend time with their families and then destroy their business entirely. It would force the supermarkets to open full hours on a Sunday (and all the staff that entails) in order to stay in competition without any benefit to the consumer, apart from their own convenience.

...

The message that it sends out is that "God helps those whom he has already helped". Supermarkets need no more help from us.

Where to start...

If a small business owner wants to spend more time with his family, they are completely free not to open his business premises during that time. That is their choice. If someone does not want to work on a Sunday, they can enter into an employment contract which specifies that they do not have to.

No supermarket will be "forced" to trade 8-hours on a Sunday. I'm sure most would anyway, but that's their choice. If they expend more money on the labour-force without increasing their profitability, fine. I thought you were fed up of the special privilege supermarkets have in the market? You cannot simultaneously say that this will be good for supermarkets and then say that they will be the ones forced to do more to cater to their customer's more demanding requirements.

The thing about retail and the ethos of supermarkets, is that convenience is king. With the advancement of these economies of scale, we've ended up with cheap, mostly good quality food, readily available to the masses when they want and need it, so as to increase the opportunities and choice consumers have in what they do with the rest of their time. As an idea it is fundamentally subservient to "wider society". This is what we call "progress".

This isn't about boosting GDP or solving the economic crisis. It's about looking for ways that the market can better meet the demand of its consumers. Convenience is a big part of that. It is something to be valued in and of itself and instrumentally. The target market for convenience isn't the high paid middle-class bourgeoisie, whose working hours are already comfortable and whose routines are already relatively decadent. This is about the modern family, in all its shapes and sizes, for whom time is a precious thing with no shortage and variety of demands upon it. It's about offering more flexibility to those who need to work at the weekend and those who need to buy things at the weekend.

For those who value Sunday, they can still choose not to work that day. They can still choose not to go to the shops that day. They can still choose to spend that day with their family and to say grace at the table. If there's enough of them, the supermarkets will probably respond accordingly by employing fewer staff for a quieter shift. If as Thomas says, people go to supermarkets because they are cheaper and more convenient, then perhaps these "small businesses" he says need protected are actually part of the problem. They're expensive and inconvenient for the consumer, and they don't value them any more. They don't need protecting.

And yes, supermarkets need brought down a peg or two. It shouldn't be straightforward for Tesco to monopolise a whole city by abusing the planning system. But telling them when they can and can't sell stuff on a Sunday doesn't stop them dominating the market, it doesn't empower their or other workers, and it doesn't help the single mum who can't find anywhere after 6pm within reach that sells Pampers nappies. All it does is serve as a sop to a pseudo-religious minority within our society who find the idea that people can do what they like on Sundays offensive.

Guess what. You don't have a right not to be offended.

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