The government has proposed that Parliament should revoke the law regulating Sunday working restrictions, cabinet chief Antal Rogán announced on Monday. Already on the next day lawmakers passed the legislation with an overwhelming majority, which means that shops choosing to do so can already be open this Sunday.
Rogán told a news conference on Monday that working and payment conditions in place before last year’s law, enacted on March 14, would be restored. This includes rules governing supplementary weekend pay.
The opposition Socialist Party recently succeeded in getting its referendum question approved seeking to restore Sunday shopping.
Rogán said the cabinet concluded it would be “irresponsible” to spend billions on a referendum on this particular issue when there were more burning questions such as the one on European Union migration quotas. A shopping referendum would have cost around HUF 5 billion.
This and related costs could be saved by lifting the law, Rogán added. He would ask the groups of ruling Fidesz and the allied ruling Christian Democrats to support the initiative at their group meetings, which they subsequently did.
Minister of National Economy Mihály Varga told the press conference that the government had conducted an assessment of the Sunday shopping restrictions. Retail sales, far from being hampered, actually grew by 5.6 percent last year, he said. Employment in the retail sector was up by 3300 at the end of 2015 compared with a year earlier, and even now there are 6600 unfilled jobs in the sector, Varga asserted.
Last week, Hungary’s supreme court approved the Socialists’ referendum question, overturning a decision by the National Election Committee. The ruling brought an end to a drawn-out dispute over an incident on February 23 when the Socialist lawmaker submitting the party’s referendum, István Nyakó, was held up by “thugs” just long enough for a rival question to be handed in. The timing of the submissions was significant because the referendum law states that while a question is being examined by a court, it is not possible to submit another question on the same subject.
Nyakó said on Monday that the government decision to revoke the Sunday shopping law was “a small victory for the opposition Socialists and a big one for the electorate”. In the light of the government decision, the referendum initiative has become unnecessary, he said, adding that what had happened at the election office was still “a criminal act”.
Socialist Party leader József Tóbiás said the decision was a “victory for the people and for democracy … The government has surrendered.” It was now clear the government could not go “over people’s heads” when deciding on issues that affect their daily lives. However, the Socialists would continue to seek a referendum on hot topics, such as the sale of state-owned farmland or salary caps for public officials.
The Christian Democrats said they understood the government’s point of view and accepted its decision, although they did not consider it a failure for the party because “the law that was implemented was unlike their original idea”, party leader Péter Harrach said. Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, a Christian Democrat, said the party would abstain in the vote on revoking the law and would continue to “campaign for free Sundays”.
The radical nationalist Jobbik party said “nobody should be forced to work on Sundays”. If they did, it should be of their own will and with a fair supplementary pay.
The opposition Együtt party said the decision reflects the government’s “fright” over the fact that Hungarian people disfavour the Sunday restriction. The opposition PM party would propose to lawmakers that after revoking the law and going back to the status quo, the rule that doubles pay for Sunday work, introduced since, should be kept, spokesman Bence Tordai said.
The National Association of Entrepreneurs and Employers (VOSZ) welcomed the government’s decision and said they considered the Sunday shopping restrictions a failure from the start. “Hungarian-owned micro companies and SMEs closed 2500 shops as a result and 9000 workers were fired”, head of the association Ferenc David said.
The union of retail workers, KASZ, said it would support restoring the old law if adequate supplementary pay is agreed upon for Sunday work, not the 50 percent bonus on top of regular pay that was in place earlier.
On Tuesday, shortly after the law was repealed by Parliament, the Socialist Party announced that it would move ahead with collecting supporting signatures for a referendum on scrapping the law on Sunday shopping restrictions. Tóbiás said the Socialists believed that the government was not ready to rule out reintroducing the law. Although the government rushed to scrap the law, it has made it clear that there was a chance that it could be brought back later, he said. The Socialist Party wanted to preserve “free Sundays”.
Tóbiás criticised Parliament’s move to scrap the rule that doubles pay for Sunday work and restore the 50 percent bonus rate that was in place before the Sunday shopping restrictions came into effect. He said his party would begin talks with retail trade unions on supplementary pay. Tóbiás insisted that the 100 percent bonus rate should be left intact.
Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary group, said the issues of Sunday working conditions and related supplementary pay would be clarified shortly. Citing regulations, he said that had Parliament not voted when it did to revoke the law, then in the case of a successful referendum it would have not been possible to resolve the issue of supplementary pay in the private sector for the next three years.
Kósa said the Socialists had framed their referendum question in such a way that all aspects of the law on Sunday shopping restrictions would be abolished, and this would have included lifting more generous wage conditions. Tuesday’s vote, however, offers an opportunity to clarify and resolve these questions within a short time, he added.
Scrapping Sunday shopping restrictions could lift GDP
The rollback of restrictions on Sunday shopping could add two-tenths of a percentage point to Hungary’s GDP this year, ING Bank’s chief analyst said in Tuesday’s issue of business daily Világgazdaság. Re-opening big retailers on Sundays could lift GDP from 2.3 percent to 2.5 percent, András Balatoni told the paper. Retailers could add more staff and even raise wages because of the extra shopping day, too, he added.
Raiffeisen Bank senior analyst Zoltán Török told the paper that the Sunday shopping restrictions did not support retail sales, but the size of the impact was impossible to gauge. He added that “large-scale” wage rises would be needed to deal with the labour shortage in the retail sector.