A new Polish law banning almost all trade on Sundays has taken effect, with large supermarkets and most other retailers closed for the first time since liberal shopping laws were introduced in the 1990s after communism’s collapse.
The change is stirring up a range of emotions in a country where many feel workers are exploited under the liberal regulations of the past years and want them to have a day of rest. But many Poles also experience consumer freedom as one of the most tangible benefits of the free market era and resent the new limit.
In Hungary, another ex-communist country, a ban on Sunday trade imposed in 2015 was so unpopular that authorities repealed it the next year. Elsewhere in Europe, however, including Germany and Austria, people have long been accustomed to the day of commercial rest and appreciate the push it gives them to escape the compulsion to shop for quality time with family and friends instead.
The law was proposed by a leading trade union, Solidarity, which says employees deserve Sundays off. It found the support of the conservative and pro-Catholic ruling party, Law and Justice, whose lawmakers passed the legislation. The influential Catholic church, to which more than 90 percent of Poles belong, has welcomed the change.
Among the Poles who see it as a good step toward returning a frazzled and overworked society to a more a more traditional lifestyle is 76-year-old Barbara Olszewska, who did some last-minute shopping Saturday evening in Warsaw.
She recalled growing up in the Polish countryside with a mother who was a full-time homemaker and a father who never worked on Sundays.
“A family should be together on Sundays,” Olszewska said after buying some food at a local Biedronka, a large discount supermarket chain.
Olszewska said that before she retired she served cold cuts in a grocery store, and was grateful she never had to work Sundays.
The new law at first bans trade two Sundays per month, but steps it up to three Sundays in 2019 and finally all Sundays in 2020, except for seven exceptions before the Easter and Christmas holidays.
Pro-business opposition parties view the change as an attack on commercial freedom and warn that it will lead to a loss of jobs, and in particular hurt students who only have time to work on the weekends. Even the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions opposes it, arguing that it will just push employees to work longer hours Fridays and Saturdays and that the work will be harder because there will be more customers.
Poles are among the hardest-working citizens in the European Union and some complain that Sundays are sometimes the only days they have free time to shop. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, only the Greeks put in longer working hours than Poles in the 28-member European Union. The average Polish employee worked 1,928 hours in 2016, according to OECD statistics.
Another last-minute shopper on Saturday evening, Daniel Wycech, 26, saw more drawbacks than benefits.
“It’s not really a problem to do more shopping a day ahead of time, but if something breaks in my kitchen or bathroom on a Sunday, there will be no way to go to the store and fix it,” said Wycech, an accountant loaded down with bottled water, bananas and other groceries.
“I am angry because this law wasn’t prepared properly. It would have been much better to force store employers to make two Sundays per month free for each worker,” Wycech added.
There are some exceptions to the ban. For instance, gas stations, cafes, ice cream parlors, pharmacies and some other businesses are allowed to keep operating Sundays. Stores at airports and train stations will also be allowed to open, as will small mom-and-pop shops, but only on the condition that only the owners themselves work.
Anyone infringing the new rules faces a fine of up to 100,000 zlotys ($29,500), while repeat offenders may face a prison sentence. Solidarity, the union that pushed for the law, appealed to people to report any violators to the National Labor Inspectorate, a state body.
Mateusz Kica, a 29-year-old tram driver in Warsaw, did his weekly shopping early Saturday to avoid the huge crowds he expected later in the day. He complained that the new law only relieves shop employees, but that workers like himself will still have to keep working weekends.
“This law isn’t really just,” Kica said.