Zero-hour contracts and your employment rights


A lot of people are talking about zero-hour contracts as it has become clear that big companies such as Sports Direct and MacDonald's are using them. But what are they?

Zero-hour contracts are employment contracts that do not guarantee an employee any hours of work per week. Ordinary employment contracts, whether they are part-time or full-time, state the number of hours per week that the employee must work. Zero-hour contracts state that the employee must work zero hours per week and if they work zero hours, they will get zero pay.

This may seem a bit strange at first – what’s the point of employing someone if you don’t want them to work any hours? But zero-contract hours start to make more sense when you look at the employers offering them and the people taking them up.

Where are they used?

Zero-hour contracts are traditionally used in the service sector, specifically in retail and the hospitality industry. Employers in these industries offer zero-hour contracts to staff because they allow the employer to respond at short notice to demand. If a retail store, for example, is having a quiet month, they can cut the number of hours available to staff on zero-hour contracts with little or no warning, and this is not a breach of the employment contract.

The types of people traditionally willing to work on zero-hour contracts are students, parents or carers; people who require a job with flexibility and that allows them to determine their own hours. Just as an employer can cancel a shift, an employee on a zero-hour contract can also cancel their shift as they are not contracted to work any hours. However, in practice it is usually the employer who does all the cancelling as the employee will be reliant on some work and may fear they will not get any more shifts if they cancel at short notice.

With the struggling economy zero-hour contracts are becoming commonplace in other sectors as employers try to manage decreased staffing budgets. Zero-hour contracts may now be found in the public sector, construction and business.

What are the main issues?

Zero-hour contracts are meant to offer flexibility for both parties, and they do. However, what they don’t offer employees is financial stability. Sports Direct, the national sports retailer, came under fire in the media when it emerged that 90% of its 20,000 strong part-time workforce are on zero-hour contracts. A former employee of Sports Direct has initiated legal action against the company as she believes her zero-hour contract and its lack of financial stability led her to suffer from panic attacks.

Zahera Gabriel-Abraham, 30, said: "Regularly they would call you in the middle of the day and they are like: 'Can you come to work now?' You feel like you have to say yes because if you say no you are seen as unreliable and the next week you don't get a shift, it is as simple as that… I felt hugely manipulated and bullied the whole time."

It is for these reasons that Labour MP Andrew Sawford wants to ban zero-hour contracts from the UK workplace. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has also agreed to a review of zero-hour contracts. He said that an outright ban is unlikely as the contracts do work for many people but that he is seeking legal advice about abusive practices, such as exclusivity. Exclusivity in zero-hour contracts mean an employee cannot look for other work despite not being given any hours by their employer.

Vince Cable said that this is ‘exploitation’ and that the Government is looking into this aspect of zero-hour contracts.

When used correctly, zero-hour contracts can work well for employees looking for flexibility. 90% of McDonald’s workers in the UK are on zero-hour contracts. A spokeswoman for the fast-food giant said employees are given the opportunity to state when they want to work, are given their shift patterns well in advance, and are never asked to be ‘on call’. If employers use zero-hour contracts in this way, they can be hugely beneficial for both employer and employee.

The crucial aspect of any employer-employee relationship is that the contract is fair and suits both parties. If you're not sure of your rights as an employee, or you need to sure the contracts you give your staff are watertight, call us and we will find you a solicitor in your area.

As an employee, what rights should you expect to get? Here is a table showing the differences between the different types of employment and the entitlements, such as holiday and sick pay.

EntitlementsFull-time permanentPart-time permanentTemporary workerZero-hour contractorContractorInternVolunteer
Annual leave
Sick pay
Redundancy pay (If you've worked for your employer for two years or more) (If you've worked for your employer for two years or more) (If you've worked for your employer for two years or more)
Maternity leave (if you've completed 26 weeks' continuous employment)
Paternity leave (If you've completed 26 weeks' continuous employment) (If you've completed 26 weeks' continuous employment) (If you've completed 26 weeks' continuous employment)
Right to claim for unfair dismissal (If you've worked for your employer for two years or more) (If you've worked for your employer for two years or more) (If you've worked for your employer for two years or more)
Right to minimum wage (Unless employed as a worker)
Working Time Regulations
Protection under Health & Safety laws


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