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Christians' careers cut short by rejection of Sunday labour: Martin Whitfield meets two men sacked over a point of principle

STEVE EASTERBROOK and Ian Martin, both committed Christians, believe their faith will help them to overcome a crisis in their lives - their careers in retail management are in tatters after being sacked for refusing to work on Sundays.

The planned employment protection in the Sunday Trading Bill, the remaining stages of which will be debated in the House of Commons next Wednesday, is dismissed as being worse than useless. They say that 'inflexible' staff like themselves are being identified and sacked before any protection comes into force and troublesome would-be recruits weeded out at interview.

The requirement for flexible staff - contracted to work any five days out of seven - will make a large proportion of the 2.2 million jobs in retailing impossible for respecters of the sabbath.

Days after his dismissal as manager of a toiletries store in Bournemouth, Mr Easterbrook, 35, applied for another job. 'I went for the position of manager of a wholefood store,' he said. 'I said why I had been dismissed and the interview was terminated immediately. We did not discuss whether I was qualified or not. It appeared the job involved working every other Sunday.'

Peter Lloyd, Minister of State at the Home Office, told MPs during the Bill's earlier passage through the Commons that it was 'unreasonable and impractical' to oblige employers to recruit workers they knew were unwilling to do part of the job.

Under the Bill, shopworkers will have to give employers three months' notice of their refusal to work on Sunday and then their right will be protected. But Mr Easterbook and Mr Martin, 29, believe that without some protection before appointment their experience is worthless.

'Most retailers are going to ask you to sign a seven-day contract. We cannot lie and if you say you don't want to work on Sunday, you won't get past the interview process,' Mr Martin said.

The two men both worked for outlets owned by A & G Homestores until their dismissal last month. Mr Easterbrook, a former store manager with the Co-op in Bristol, managed the company's store in Poole. Each has three children and earned between pounds 15,000 and pounds 18,000.

Last month they were given the same ultimatum. 'The company was to have a policy of trading on Sunday and we were told it would like us to be behind that policy or it would have to accept our resignation,' Mr Easterbrook said. 'That would involve a commitment to Monday-to-Sunday trading. We were happy to give 100 per cent Monday to Saturday but could not resign as we wanted our jobs. We were sacked.'

Despite their dismissal, both men sympathise with Alan Greensides, manager of A & G Homestores, and accept that competitive pressures are likely to force Sunday opening. The only comment Mr Greensides would make was that the sackings were not linked to the Sunday refusal: 'They could not follow company policy.'

Mr Martin, an active member of Bournemouth's evangelical Hillview Community Church, said that he was looking for openings in sales as an alternative to retailing but was unlikely to be able to command the same salary with little experience.

'It does not just affect Christians. There is not time for anything as a family. All this back-to- basics stuff is about the family and family values but, at the same time, it is being undermined like this,' he said. 'I do not believe that God would have tested us unless he was willing to provide for us. It could be that I will get a job in sales next week.'

(Photograph omitted)