Zero hours contract

The term “zero hours contract” is not an official legal definition set out in employment law.

Instead, it is used to describe a range of contractual arrangements where workers have no guaranteed weekly hours or income and are only paid for the hours they work.

While zero hours contracts have been used in the UK for many years, their use has spread widely in recent years along with rises in other forms of casualisation including false self-employment, agency, temporary and part-time work.

How many workers are on a zero hours contract?

There is no definitive figure.  However, a survey of employers by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) estimated that a million workers, around 3-4% of the workforce, are now employed on a zero hours contract. And in March 2014 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released official figures showing that more than half a million (some 583,000) workers are now employed on a zero hours contract.

What’s wrong with a zero hours contract?

Employers’ organisations have argued that zero hours contracts provide employers (and employees) with flexibility in a difficult economic climate.  But unions say the contracts are unfair, insecure and exploitative. They point out that:

  • A worker on a zero hours contract has no guaranteed levels of regular earnings.
  • Research has showed that those employed on a zero hours contract receive less pay.
  • The need to respond to often short notice calls to attend work is particularly difficult particularly for those who have to arrange care for dependents.
  • Many employment rights that are clearly defined for permanent staff become variable when working hours are irregular.

Zero hours contracts and workers’ rights

Workers with a zero hours contract are often denied employee status, which means fewer and less favourable employment rights. Some employers use them to cut pay and terms and conditions and avoid holiday pay, pensions and other benefits enjoyed by employees and agency staff.

And while weekly income is often inadequate because workers cannot work the number of hours required to make ends meet, the need to be available for work means they cannot take up other work.

Zero hours contracts – bad for employers?

There are also potential disadvantages for employers. These include:

  • a lack of guaranteed staff;
  • not being able to attract and retain high quality staff; and
  • a reduction in continuity and therefore the quality of services.

What should I do if I am offered or already working under a zero hours contract?

If you are a member of a trade union you should contact your local union rep, Regional Office or Head Office for advice. 

If you are not in a trade union, you can find out which you could join by looking at unionfinder on the TUC worksmart website.

A trade union may be able to help to negotiate improvements on your behalf and make sure that:

  • As a “worker” you receive the holiday and sick pay you are due.
  • You can turn down work when offered for whatever reason.
  • Your employer gives reasonable notice of when work is available or cancelled to give you chance to plan childcare for example; You can work elsewhere when no work is available (and any “exclusivity” clause in your contract is removed).
  • You are offered an employment contract specifying your hours of work where your work is on-going and regular.