Sunday trading A Day of Rest No More

Despite most German employees being banned from working on Sundays, new figures show the number foregoing the traditional day of rest is on the rise, as the reality of today's 24/7 world takes hold.
We're here for you on Sundays too! But would she rather be out with friends?

A new study has shown that the number of Germans working on Sundays is rising despite a law that largely bans the activity.

The percentage of Germans laboring on the traditional day of rest has jumped from 10 percent in 1995 to 14 percent last year. Although seemingly a small rise, it is surprising because almost all commercial sectors are prohibited from opening on Sundays, including supermarkets, most stores and financial services.

As a result of the figures, Verdi, a large German trade union, is demanding more protection for employees. But Germany’s highest court has warned that more Sunday work could become necessary in today’s 24/7 world.

Under Germany’s Working Time Act, employees are banned from working between midnight Saturday and midnight Sunday, and on public holidays. But there are exceptions, including: media; emergency and security services; caregivers; those working in restaurants and bakeries; athletes and entertainers; agricultural workers; and people who work in the public services sector, such as transportation.

Employees from these sectors made up the 14 percent of workers in Germany who “worked consistently or regularly on Sundays” last year, Germany’s Federal Statistical Office revealed this week. The agency said the increase from 10 percent 20 years ago reflected the liberalization of operating hours at stores and other businesses.

Trade unions are concerned about the loss of workers’ weekends and rest time. Verdi union

Trade unions are concerned about the loss of workers’ weekends and rest time.

“With Industry 4.0 [Germany’s policy of digitization], a working world is rapidly developing in which employees are accessible around the clock, seven days a week,” a Verdi representative said.

The services union represents 1,000 sectors and has more than 2 million members in Germany. They include employees in patient and elderly care services as well as those in transportation, trade, utilities and security services, all of which are greatly affected by weekend work. It wants regulations that provide better protection for workers.

“The protection of Sunday, which has always been a religious protest against ‘the drudgery of work’ and ‘the idolatry of money,’ is one of those inherited rules that are preventing mankind from being turned completely into a commodity,” the union said. This protection is even more important in the digitalized and globalized working world than in past decades, it added.

The Federal Statistical Office usually does not offer analysis or comment on its figures but made a slight exception with the release of the Sunday worker data. “Important factors for the quality of life are not only the hours worked but also the times at which people worked,” it said. Weekend work, as well as evening and night work, are also referred to as unusual or “atypical” working hours that can detract from the quality of life.

According to surveys by the Confederation of German Trade Unions, 14 percent of employees are often on the job Saturdays or Sundays and 33 percent work occasionally at weekends. More than 50 percent self-employed people work considerably more often on the weekend than “dependent employees.” Seven percent of the self-employed work nights, compared to 9 percent of regular employees.

Figures on the number of people working evenings, another union bugbear, have also risen, from 15 percent in 1994 to 26 percent in 2014. This is most likely a result of the liberalization of shopping hours. In the major cities, many supermarkets are now open until midnight. Shops that open around the clock have long ceased to be exotic.

Germany’s strict labor laws are rooted in the 1950s, when West Germany was taking off as a postwar economic miracle. As a result of the boom, unions gained extensive social benefits for their workers. In 1957, the Industrial Union of Metalworkers pushed through its step-by-step plan for a 40-hour working week. The average at the time was 48 hours. Later, a limit of eight hours per day was formalized in the Working Time Act – although, as with Sunday working, reality has overtaken rules here as well.

In 2009, Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of maintaining special protection for Sundays, which the court said was “the only remaining day of rest from work” that offers the opportunity for family and socializing. Last November, the court overturned a ruling allowing call centers in the state of Hessen special permission to open on Sundays. But it added that “in view of the change in customer behavior,” Sunday work could become necessary.

As more and more people take to the Internet to use services and online stores, the trend is set to continue. In another 20 years, the Sunday working figures are likely to look very different.


This article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]