Major steps toward implementing two of the government’s key pieces of legislation for this term of office were taken yesterday as Parliament approved a bill extending shopping hours while also giving an initial nod to its draft law on labor reforms. In a streamlined summer session of Parliament, a vote of 55 MPs in favor and 44 against paved the way for shops to stay open until 9 p.m. on weekdays and 8 p.m. on Saturdays. The ruling conservatives believe the new law will help stimulate the market and reduce unemployment by creating more jobs. «The change in opening hours is necessary as part of the modernization of the Greek market,» said Development Minister Dimitris Sioufas. «It is being demanded by customers and trade, which cannot survive with rules that were in effect during the last century.» PASOK, whose deputies voted against the bill, said the new timetable would lead to the closure of many small and medium-sized operations which did not have the ability to compete with their bigger rivals. «The only ones who gain anything out of this reform are the big department store chains,» said Socialist leader George Papandreou. Meanwhile, MPs voted in principle yesterday to pass the labor bill – another key tenet of the government’s structural reforms policy – which seeks to introduce cheaper overtime and flexible work hours. Under the bill, for the first five hours of overtime employees will be paid half the current rate they receive for this type of work, meaning they will be paid 25 percent on top of their normal hourly rate. It will also allow employers to ask staff to work up to 10 hours in a single day, rather than the normal eight, in return for working fewer hours on another day. Workers will have the right to refuse the request. The two main parties clashed on this draft law as well, especially after the government added a last-minute amendment to the bill which ruled that in small companies, where workers have not formed a union or are not members of one, bosses will be allowed to bring in flexible work-hours, provided he or she has the consent of all the workers. The rule, which essentially applies to firms with less than 20 employees, angered PASOK, not only because it was submitted at the eleventh hour but also because, they claimed, it would leave staff prone to being bullied by their employer. The government, however, denied the accusations and argued that the ruling would help small firms be more nimble and adaptable to changing market situations. «We are doing this so that small companies can arrange their work hours without the intervention of trade unions,» said Labor Minister Panos Panayiotopoulos, citing the example of a textile business which might need its employees to work intensely over a short period of time to meet an urgent order that guarantees the firm’s survival. Papandreou said if PASOK came to power, it would scrap the law on opening hours and the labor reforms included in the government’s bill, which he described as «one-sided.» The country’s largest umbrella union, GSEE, has called a general 24-hour strike for Tuesday, in protest at the labor reforms bill, which is due to be voted into law on the same day.