Humbug or helpful? UK not forcing shops to close on holiday
Acton Institute Powerblog

Humbug or helpful? UK not forcing shops to close on holiday

Theresa_May_UK_Home_Office

Although Americans have lost the notion altogether, British tradition still remembers that Christmas is a season that begins, rather than ends, on December 25. In addition to Christmas, many businesses close their doors on December 26 in observance of Boxing Day. Over the years, the holiday has also become the UK’s third-largest shopping day, generating £3.74 billion last year.

Since shoppers need workers to serve them, more retailers have remained open each year. This spurred more than 200,000 Brits to sign a petition asking the government to force shop-owners to close that day, so that retail workers can enjoy “some decent family time to relax and enjoy the festivities like everyone else.”

Prime Minister Theresa May responded that British businesses, like the post-Brexit UK, are free to remain open for business. “We do not believe it is for central government to tell businesses how to run their shops or how best to serve their customers,” the administration said. “Therefore, we are not proposing to ban shops from opening on Boxing Day.”

Her decision begins with the right procedural point by reining in central government. While government offices closed, it is not her place to dictate that policy to businesses of varying sizes and facing differing local circumstances (and financial outlooks). There are also other considerations.

Some people cannot be given the holiday – or any holiday – off because of the nature of their work allows no breaks. Aside from emergency and medical personnel, convenience store clerks, security guards, and a host of other professions would be structurally excluded from any government proclamation.

But what about the rest of the people? Was her decision a bane or a boon for workers? Is this humbug or helpful?

Several segments of the working population would be grateful for the opportunity to work on December 26.

Many appreciate the chance to make extra money, often at a holiday wage premium. For instance, hundreds of thousands of people have the opportunity to make holiday pay of time-and-half at supermarket giant Tesco (a reduction from double-time after a national minimum wage hike earlier this year). A well-intentioned motion to “help” these employees could deprive them of items they want – or the pay they need – to best provide for their families according to their own standards.

Asking business owners facing a negative cash flow to shut out a willing public on one of the most lucrative shopping days of the year could mean the difference between staying open or closing permanently. Their employees would find that gives them entirely too much free time.

Voluntarily working on holidays is especially attractive to the most marginalized workers: lower-income employees, newer hires looking to gain job experience, part-time workers hungry for more hours, and lonely people without family ties. Many struggling people gladly rearrange their holiday celebrations an hour earlier or later in exchange for the opportunity to put more presents under the tree. Since there’s no way the government can know the individual state of millions of individual citizens, it is best left to each individual to decide how best to spend the holidays.

I am well-acquainted with this issue. I have personally benefited from working on holidays. Until quite recently, radio stations required a human being to be on the premises 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. I was fortunate enough to break into radio after I graduated high school, just before all stations embraced automation. That meant that for years, I spent every holiday alone in a tiny, soundproof studio. I remember my first year in radio, as I ladled out my grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner from Tupperware containers onto a plastic plate – and how delicious it tasted next to the console. Working those shifts throughout college gave me the skills to one day work full-time in a highly competitive industry.

Later, holiday pay helped my young family make ends meet. One station showed its gratitude by setting out snacks, personalized gifts, and notes or phone calls of appreciation to everyone who worked over the holidays.

There is one additional aspect of this debate that is often overlooked: I tithed the money I earned working on the holidays. In a free economy, every dollar paid – or not paid – circulates to a multitude of other sources, sacred and secular. Had the government required a willing employee to remain idle at its own designated times and seasons, it would have deprived the Church and parachurch ministries of funds and impacted their ability to carry out their purposes.

That hardly seems a fitting way to observe the Christmas season.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.