Germans are freed at last to shop on Saturday afternoon

Saturdays will never be the same again and some Germans fear the very fabric of society is about to be ripped apart by a radical decision to allow shops to open at the customer's convenience. The Bundestag yesterday voted to extend shopping hours to 8pm on weekdays and a daring 4pm on Saturdays, overturning a 40-year law which ensured that shop assistants got home at a decent time.

In practice, that meant that they closed the tills at 6.15pm on all weekdays but Thursday, and the last customer would be ejected at 2pm on Saturdays. On the Sabbath, only petrol stations have been allowed to sell goods, but not fresh milk or fresh bread. Sundays will remain holy even under the new regime, though bakers are to be given special dispensation for three hours in the morning.

Debate about the law which made working people's life a misery had been raging for years, and it is not over yet. The reforms are backed by the governing coalition and vehemently opposed by everybody else. MPs belonging to the left, fearful for shopworkers' quality of life, voted against the amendment, which scraped through by the narrowest of majorities.

Next month it will go to the opposition-dominated upper chamber, the Bundesrat, where it will almost certainly be rejected. Then the government will need an absolute majority in the Bundestag - half the total number of MPs plus one - to confirm the Bill's passage. In yesterday's vote, the governing coalition was five short of that, because of the defection of one Christian Democrat and the abstention of another three.

The government is keen to liberalise Germany's stunted retail sector in order to help create jobs and boost consumer spending at a time of recession. More than 100,000 new people would have to be hired by stores, but the unions argue that many of these would be "Macjobs" - underpaid work with no security.

The unions have found their natural allies among the shop-keeper class who have grown rich, rude and lazy in the sellers' market that is Germany. The corner-shop owners are the backbone of Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic party. Conservative MPs are aware that offending them, which these reforms surely will, would exact severe retribution at the polls.

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