Universe Column May 11th 2003
By David Alton
When Parliament voted to allow widespread Sunday Trading I argued that there would be a series of disastrous ripple effects. Chief among these would be the pressure on employees to work on Sundays and the effect this would have on family life. The latest evidence vindicates those fears and underlines what a seismic shift has taken place in employment practices. One of the most significant changes in the labour market is the rise in Saturday and Sunday working – and this is not confined to the retail sector – many other sectors including distribution, financial services and manufacturing are affected too.
There are now 3 million parents, with children at school, who work regularly on both Saturdays and Sundays. The children in these families do not spend even one day of the week with the working parent over at least nine months of the year.
At the time I was opposing the changes in the Sunday trading laws Labour was in Opposition . Their Home Affairs Spokesman supported the abolition of Sunday as a special day and argued for the primacy of consumer choice to shop where and when they wanted. However, he also said that freedom had to go hand in hand with the right not to work on Sunday. I argued that such a right would be worthless when faced with a flood of pressure from the moguls in the supermarket chains.
The Spokesman is now Prime Minister and he should take a long look at how shop workers have suffered so that others might enjoy endless hours of shop opening.
Throughout those debates the proponents of Sunday Trading said that employees would welcome the chance to earn more cash. The reality, as described in recent research from the Rowntree Foundation is that three quarters of working parents are not working unsocial hours primarily because they need extra money but because they are required to do so if they are to keep their jobs.
An estimated 10% of parents with children under 14 now work regularly on both Saturdays and Sundays. Between 71% and 80% say that they had no choice in the matter; it is a job requirement. The Rowntree report states that “Parents who worked on Sundays were considerably more likely than other parents to report that their work frequently disrupted activities with children, as well as family activities.”
A new organisation, Keep Time For Children – spawned by the Cambridge based Keep Sunday Special Campaign – rightly contend that “if parents work all weekend, they will be harming the family and building up enormous problems for the future.”
They are now campaigning for all employees to have a guaranteed regular day off each week and parent employees with children of school age either Saturday or Sunday off each week.
All of us with young children know how important it is to have some of the pressure on time reduced so that more time can be spent with the children. A child’s development is impaired if the only time available for them is a snatched half and hour at the end of the day when both parents and children are tired. No matter how many Child Support Agencies, welfare benefits and after school clubs are created they will never be a substitute for growing up in a secure setting with parents available for their children. It is pretty ironic that Mr. Blair has introduced family-friendly hours in the House of Commons, and mid-term breaks to allow MPs to be with their children, but is not persuaded by the same argument for shop workers.