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Why shopping on Sunday is a controversial economic idea in Greece

Americans take shopping on a Sunday for granted. But Greece, a heavily religious country, has been reluctant to embrace the concept. Now, seven years into a financial crisis, the International Monetary Fund is insisting that the government allow Sunday shopping, in an effort to kickstart the economy. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    For many years, most businesses were closed on Sundays in the U.S. But for many decades, shopping on Sundays has become the norm here. However, in Greece, it remains a major point of contention, pitting religious tradition against recent economic realities.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    In Piraeus, Greece's main port city, the churches are filled to bursting point as orthodox Christians maintain traditions handed down the generations. Here, Sundays are for devotions to the saints, not for worshipping at the altar of profit.

    The city's bishop has condemned Sunday shopping as an act of war with the church. But in Saint Evangalistra Church, Father Yiorgios Yiorgakopoulos is more measured.

  • YIORGIOS YIORGAKOPOULOS, Saint Evangalistra Church (translated):

    We are of the opinion from a religious point of view that the sixth day of the week is provided to man for communication with God but also that attempts are being made to get rid of what we know as normal life. To try and turn us into robots and machines by making all the days the same, every day a working day — all days without meaning.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    And this is the heart of Piraeus' shopping district on a Sunday morning. Everything is firmly shuttered. But the International Monetary Fund believes it's time for this particular trade barrier to be lifted.

  • MAN:

    Liberalizing the trade market will allow for small and medium enterprises to get an advantage in the market by allowing them to open on Sundays.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    One man who'd like to use a sharp implement on what he regards as Greece's restrictive trading practices is Notis Mitarakis, a conservative opposition politician who used to be a development minister.

  • NOTIS MITARAKIS, Conservative Lawmaker:

    Allowing people the right to work is a fundamental right in our system of economy. In order to get out of the crisis, the key parameter is to increase production, is to increase GDP. And anything that can help to that direction, anything that allows people who are willing and able to work, to get out and get into the market, is positive.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    This mall is a compelling memorial to the corpse that is the Greek economy. It's on Stadiou Street, once Athens most expensive shopping thoroughfare. It was never exactly Fifth Avenue, but before the crisis it was throbbing and thriving.

    Greece's mom and pop businesses have really taken a battering during this seven-year-long financial crisis. In all, a quarter of a million small and medium sized enterprises have closed down, throwing half a million people onto the streets and into the vast army of the unemployed.

    Despite vigorous oppositions from trades unions and the church, shopkeepers were given permission to open for a handful of Sundays each year at special times like Christmas. But according to business leaders, this has made absolutely no difference at all to the level of trading.

    In its heyday, store owners would pay up to $1,500 a square feet for retail space on Stadiou Street. In amongst the boarded up shells of former businesses on Stadiou, Andreas Papagiogiou is clinging on, just for the sake of his 35-year-old son who will inherit the shop. Papagiogiou has been here for 40 years and on the day we met, he had sold goods worth just 60 dollars.

  • ANDREAS PAPAGIOGIOU, Store Owner (through translator):

    Opening on a Sunday so far has benefited nobody. We're making a loss. We can't afford to bring in the staff because we can't pay them a Sunday rate.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    This is Ermou, now Athens main retail street, on a Sunday before Christmas, which explains the large crowds. But many of them were just window shopping. People weren't over laden with Christmas goodies.

  • MAN:

    The Sunday opening, of course, is creating more, let's say, expenses to the companies because they have to pay 75 percent more to their employees for the Sunday working compared to the other working days. Therefore for the small sized companies, this is something that they cannot afford.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Vassilis Korkidis is the head of the country's Small Business Federation. Korkidis claims that Sunday trading would only benefit multinational corporations and outlets like Athens main mall, which he says can afford premium wages on a Sunday.

  • VASSILIS KORKIDIS, Small Business Federation President:

    The life of a small and medium sized entrepreneur is a nightmare. He has to live every day in order to pay taxes. We pay almost 65 percent of our turnover for taxes. The 35 percent left is not enough actually to run a business for your family to live and to buy growth.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Greece's plight was high on President Obama's list of priorities when he visited Athens just after the election. He made it clear that Greeks deserves a break.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    In order to make reforms sustainable the Greek economy needs the space to return to growth and start creating jobs again. The IMF has said that debt relief is crucial. I will continue to urge creditors to take the steps needed to put Greece on a path towards a durable economic recovery because it's in all of our interests that Greece succeeds.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Greece's beleaguered prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, has angered the country's creditors by repeatedly reneging on promises.

  • ALEXIS TSIPRAS, Greek Prime Minister (through translator):

    The Greek economy and our society, after seven whole years, cannot take any more austerity.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    But the European Union, which has provided most of Greece's bail out cash ignored the U.S. president. Analyst Nick Malkoutzis believes that any recovery will be further delayed while the IMF and European Union disagree over what is the next step.

  • NICK MALKOUTZIS, MarcoPolis:

    The Europeans are reluctant to provide the debt relief that Greece needs because of political reasons. The IMF is reluctant to back down on what it sees as the structural side which it thinks is very important moving forward. There's wrong and right on both sides.

    The problem is Greece is caught between the two. The finance minister likened it to be being trapped between two elephants that were fighting and that's the reality for Greece at the moment.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    The financial crisis may mean hardship that will last a generation. But at St. Evangelistra's Church, theologian Ilias Liamis was resolute over the issue of Sunday trading.

  • ILIAS LIAMIS, Theologian (through translator):

    This is an attempt to eradicate the better things in life — the joy of meeting up with a friend ,the joy of having a day when your mind will not be occupied solely with numbers, cash and consumer goods, the concept of having a day to relax and rest one's soul. This concept seems to be considered as something that should no longer exist. The important thing here is that this is a challenge urging us to change the way we think.

  • YIORGIOS YIORGAKOPOULOS:

    (through translator): The crisis is basically a spiritual one. People themselves decide how they will live their lives, just as those older than us lived with less and were happy. So will we learn to live with less money and still be happy.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    This woman is unburdening her troubles to Saint Spyridon. Elsewhere millions of Greeks are crying silent tears of anger at what they perceive as the injustice of a never ending financial crisis.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Malcolm Brabant in Athens.

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