The notion that one day each week should be reserved for activities that are not commercial is historically a religious one but there are supporting arguments from the trade union and other labor rights movements that support the idea for entirely secular reasons. There is also a growing interest in the notion of the democratization of leisure; the notion that rest-time should not be a privilege purely enjoyed by the professional classes.
Actions taken by the European Union and other bodies to impose a maximum working week have followed in this tradition. The religious teaching on the subject is instructional; Christ’s comment that ‘the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath’ and the idea of the Sabbath being a day of rest that is ‘sanctified to the Lord’ where originally even everyday activities such as cooking and lighting a fire were banned.[i]
In contrast to this position stands the idea that people should be allowed to earn as much as they choose to – or are required to – and that is nobody else business if someone chooses to work seven days a week.
The issue is complex on a number of levels; ethically, legally, economically as well as in terms of religion. In much of the West the religious argument is simply a non-starter in an era when everyone expects to be able to go to the supermarket or DIY store at the weekends and respect for the Day of the Lord is anathema. Equally, why pick Sunday? Jews could argue for Saturday, Muslims for Friday and so on. In much of Eastern Asia the seven day week is normative but many economists have questioned whether this is productive, arguing that rest is a valuable contribution to working life – essentially that people are more efficient if they are not constantly focused on work.
That said there are many professions where constant activity is assumed – politics, academia and the arts, to name a few. In any of these professions, and many others, it would seem odd to compel workers to take a day off. However, for many engaged in routine or repetitive work the possibility for a day of rest may be welcome but the loss of income would not be.
Broadly speaking the groups in favour of a restriction on Sunday trading fall into two groups. Many of them are Christian organisations such as the UK’s Keep Sunday Special[ii] campaign or the Canadian group Save Our Sundays[iii]. However such organisations frequently receive the support of trades union, notably those organising in the retail sector.
According to an NOP poll conducted in the UK in 2005, 87% of people agreed that it was useful for social cohesion and family stability for there to be one designated day off for all members of society. The argument from many in workers’ rights organisations is that a shared day of rest is a good thing in and off itself and if that happens to coincide with a day of religious observance then so be it.
The right to freedom of religious practice and association is acknowledged by most countries and is enshrined in Article 18 of UN Declaration of Human Rights[i]. In those countries that can, on the basis of their history be deemed to be Christian nations it makes sense to recognise this fact by acknowledging Sunday, the Sabbath which was made for all mankind,[ii] as a day free for worship or leisure as the individual sees fit.
Equally Article 24 of the same Declaration maintains the right to reasonable leisure time. It seems only practical for governments to recognise the confluence of these two principles by reserving the same day.
Compelling individuals to take their leisure time on one particular day undermines the entire nature of that right. The whole principle of leisure is that it should not be forced or required, it is that time when the individual is not bound to comply with the dictates of any authority – be that an employer, the state or a religion.
Leisure should be time taken at the convenience – and to the benefit – of the individual. If the individual choses to use that time for religious observance that is their right but the presumption that a day of religious observance is the best day to take is unfair to the many who do not share those views.
There is extensive evidence that reserving one day for communal recreation has benefits in areas as diverse as community cohesion and the reduction of childhood obesity. The Colombian initiative, Ciclovia, which closes some streets altogether on a Sunday has demonstrated impressive results in these areas in the thirty years it has been established.[i]
An NOP consumer poll in 2005 showed that 85% of respondents in the UK suggested that they would rather have a shared day off for community, family and recreational activities than see shopping hours extended on a Sunday.
Representatives of those employed in the retail sector routinely condemn the impact that Sunday trading has on the family lives of those required to work[ii].
Legislation already exists in most countries where this issue is in dispute – including the UK where the NOP poll was conducted – have the option to opt out of working on a Sunday[i]. In addition there is an entire body of case law in the USA where various states have upheld the rights of individual workers not to work on a Sunday should they so choose[ii].
The contention that a shared day of rest is beneficial to the community simply ignores the fact that for many those leisure activities require others to be working. For example eating out, going to bars or shopping routinely feature as among peoples’ favourite pastimes[iii].
Unions consistently argue that vulnerable workers – migrants, part-time workers, the young and other groups – are simply unable to choose their leisure time at their own preference. It is unlikely that all members of a family all of whom are in such employment would be likely to have leisure time to share.
It is simply a democratic principle that the right to an active family life and access to shared leisure should not be the preserve of the wealthy.
This divide can only be met by enforcing a day shared by all members of society.
For many marginalised workers the opportunity to work what many would consider antisocial hours is their only chance of employment. Legislating to enforce leisure time removes a valuable opportunity for earning.
There are entire micro-economies based around this reality and it is unsurprising that marginalised individuals, families and communities operate within these sectors.
As a result their leisure time is also shared. It is worth noting that were members of these groups excluded from the opportunity to earn would considerably diminish their capacity to enjoy any leisure time at all.
It is unfair to compel people to take their leisure at a time that is not of their convenience. Workers who have to work a certain number of hours per week just to cover their costs should not be obliged to take their leisure time at a time when they cannot access services such as shops and banks.
For those with no religious conviction there is no particular benefit for Sunday being their day of leisure. Instead a more fluid relationship between work and leisure ensures that those with the least available free time can take it to their greatest convenience.
Exactly the same group that Opposition identify are also those least likely to have any leisure time at all. They are also least likely to have leisure at a time when they can share it with their families and communities.
Sunday is already the day when most people are likely to be away from work all enshrining it in legislation would achieve is expanding what is already the case for the majority to those who do not currently benefit from a shared day of rest.
It is already difficult enough for members of minority religions to have time for their own religious celebrations. It seems unlikely that employers would be likely to respect the rights of other religious groups to celebrate their own days of rest if employers were already compelled to recognise Sundays as a compulsory day of rest.
Equally, for the state to identify one particular day as the ‘religious’ day worthy of commemoration would be a statement that one particular religious persuasion was in some way superior to others.
Different cultures have varying traditions of rest. Approaches towards the number of days of vacations taken each year, the length of the working day, which annual festivals should be treated as public holidays, siestas, work levels during Ramadan and so on are all taken on the basis of the culture and history of that particular country. As a result it is not unreasonable for a country with a Christian background to identify Sunday as their designated day of rest.
The work ethic of any country relates to their history as is reflected in the festivals that are given significance. Observation of Christmas or Eid or Cheoseok has little to do with the personal values of the individuals concerned but rather the historical norms of that society.
Many people work long hours not out of greed or obsession but out of simple necessity. To deny people the right to work when they need to is unfair and, potentially, financially crippling. In an ideal world everybody would have a good work-life balance but that is not the reality faced by millions of workers, even in developed economies.
Obliging workers to lose a day’s pay when that may impoverish then and their families is unlikely to enhance their family life, their level of relaxation, their spiritual experience or their access to leisure services.
Opposition is making an excellent argument for ensuring that workers should be remunerated at a level to support a reasonable level of existence but does not speak to the issue of keeping Sundays as a day of rest.
Indeed it is possible to take the issue further and suggest that the understanding that everybody has the right to leisure time would require payment at such a level that would allow that time to be enjoyed.
A work-life balance should not be defined purely in terms of time spent active and time spent idle. Rather, it must speak as much to time spent earning and time spent spending and relaxing.