Friday 6 December 2019

Miriam O’Donohoe: If our businesses are struggling so much, why did they shut for 12 days?

Miriam O’Donohoe

FOR tens of thousands of workers, this weekend marks the end of a marathon Christmas and New Year break. The half-empty buses and DARTs, ghost-like offices, packed shops and public parks over the past while are testament to the fact that the country has been on one long, 12 days of Christmas (plus) snooze-in.

Thankfully, life will get back to normal in Ireland Inc on Monday morning. (Unless, of course, you are President Higgins, who has jetted off to Lanzarote for a week accompanied by his assistant to "prepare for the year ahead").

Because Christmas Day fell on a Tuesday, many finished work on Friday, December 21. There was little point in going back on the Thursday or Friday, right? And hey, with the beginning of the next week New Year's, why not take a few extra leave days and make a real break of it?

Am I alone in thinking that in these straitened financial times, it doesn't make any sense whatsoever for so many businesses to go into extended shutdown mode?

Given that we are emerging from one of the worst recessions in our economic history, it is more important than ever that business owners, employees and indeed politicians put in extra time to help get the country back on track.

One real sign for me that business came to a standstill over the past two weeks was my email inbox. Normally I am cursing the amount of emails that ping through each day. It is still but a dribble.

A simple example of the shutdown comes to mind. There was not a hairdresser to be had anywhere in our capital city on December 27 for a blow dry ahead of a wedding. I gave up the search after several fruitless phone calls to different hair salons on Christmas Eve to make an appointment. Most were closed until December 28 or 29. It was a talking point with a lot of women at the wedding itself.

The view was that with so many weddings now being held over Christmas this was an opportunity – and business – lost.

Fast forward to New Year's Day and a more serious absurdity. A friend rang one of our major regional hospitals concerned about an ill relative who is attending as an outpatient. She was told, as it was January 1, there was only a minimum number of staff on duty and to ring back. As if people don't get ill because of the day of the year that is in it.

I have heard third-level students grumble about the fact they are not back to college until mid-January and hey, it's the same old story every year with the Dail. It went into recess on December 20 and won't sit again until January 16. This is despite the fact that we have important business in both houses of the Oireachtas to deal with before the summer, including the sensitive abortion legislation.

It is different in other countries. My cousin in the US told me that his Christmas break amounted to one day – December 25. And that was the case for most of his family and friends. US President Barack Obama cut short his Christmas break to lead the fiscal cliff negotiations. Senators and Washington Hill staffers had to cancel their New Year's Eve plans as a deal was being hammered out.

Could Mr Higgins not have jetted off to Lanzarote for his break before this week, when the country was getting back into action? No one denies him a break from his busy schedule but what signal is he sending to the rest of us?

Now don't get me wrong. I do not deny people time off, and God knows so many work hard enough during the year, in many cases for less pay these days. But the three official bank holidays – December 25 and 26 and January 1 – have turned into one long party. A huge exception, admittedly, is the retail sector. I couldn't help but feel sorry for some very tired-looking shop assistants who were on duty in Dundrum Shopping centre on December 26, some telling me they worked until 5pm on Christmas Eve.

Maybe other businesses can take the lead from retail, who have had a very difficult time in the past five years.

I bet employees themselves would be quite happy to be back at work. A survey carried out in Ireland in 2010 revealed that half of workers think the Christmas and New Year break is excessive.

Christmas can be a stressful time for families, a time when relationship issues surface and when pressure is on to spend money. Companies are operating with slimmer margins and tighter deadlines these days, and an extensive break upsets work schedules and routines. By shortening the Christmas holiday, we would be gaining money by working the extra hours and protecting businesses at the same time.

There are thousands of unemployed in Ireland who would have given anything to have had a job to go to in the last week. Maybe it is time we lay the work practices of Christmases past to rest.

Irish Independent

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