The UK Government recently announced that it will relax the Sunday trading laws (which currently prevent large stores from opening for more than six hours on Sundays) for an eight-week period during the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.  It is keen to ensure that the UK is seen as “open for business” during this period and that retailers can benefit from the extra custom of visitors to the Games.

Although these changes will only be temporary they throw up a number of employment issues for retailers to consider. This is not just a London-centric problem either, as events are planned across the UK. As a starting point, employers will have to think about how they can persuade staff to work the extra hours.  This means looking at their current employment contracts to see how flexible they are - can employers require employees to work additional hours?  If not, many employers may be able to obtain sufficient support by offering overtime pay.  If the extra business volume is worth opening for (nothing in the change in law makes this compulsory) the staff costs will presumably be a price worth paying.  However, difficulties may come if overtime is not on offer and employers are seeking to force through any changes.   One thing to watch out for is the right of shop employees to refuse to work on Sundays if appropriate notice is given.

Employers also need to be alive to potential issues under the Working Time Regulations 1998 – will staff be required to work more than the average weekly working time limit of 48 hours or have they opted out of this restriction?  Employers also need to be aware of the need for an 11 hour daily rest break and a 24 hour weekly rest break. 

Can employers hire additional staff as agency workers? This may be an option to cover the Olympic period, but employers need to consider the right to pay equality once agency workers have been engaged for 12 weeks. This may not be an issue for some employers, but others may be relying on paying agency staff less than permanent staff to reap the biggest benefit from the extra hours the shop will be open.

Finally, employers need to be aware of the scope for discrimination claims if employees are forced to work on Sundays.  Although family time is not specifically protected, equality laws provide that where a policy requires (rather than simply asks) employees to be available to work on Sundays, this may discriminate against Christians and other religious groups. It may also discriminate against those who have caring responsibilities.  Employers will need to be able to justify their reason for imposing this policy - what is the aim of the policy and is there a less discriminatory means of achieving that aim?  Could you replace a “religious objector” with another employee with affiliation to Mammon instead, for example?  How reliable are the projected revenues from longer Sunday hours on which you are basing your business case for opening for those hours?

It is unclear yet which retailers will capitalise on the ability to open longer hours. Many are looking at the additional staffing costs and the inevitable industrial relations issues in seeking to cover the additional hours.

Like all new legislation, planning in advance is always recommended.  Having a plan will help retailers ascertain the likely support for working additional hours, the potential areas of push back and whether there is any prospect of industrial action being called for.  Although the Government’s plans have the support of many large retailers, they have predictably been widely criticised by Usdaw, the shop workers union, which believes the changes will have a detrimental impact on shop workers and their families.  It suspects the UK Government of using the Olympics as a cover for its wider deregulation agenda. Christian organisations have equally predictably also expressed concerns about relaxing the Sunday trading laws.  At risk of sounding all a bit Daily Express, however, there must surely be decent arguments that for the sake of a one-off event lasting only a few weeks, both unions and religious bodies should be prepared to take a broader views for the greater good of the British economy and, in most cases, the employees themselves also?