Back to Blog

Understanding Zero Hours contracts - your rights

By Principal Lawyer, Employment

"The recent “egg on face” experience of Nick Clegg, when he (rightly) blasted the use of zero hours contacts and the effect on family life, only to see reports two days later that Whitehall departments use zero hours contracts, goes to show just how stealthily pervasive these working arrangements have become.

Reports of the burgeoning use of zero hours contracts can trigger a particularly visceral sense of unfairness. For those of us who advise employees and follow these issues closely it does however feel like this is very much part and parcel of the larger issue of the continual weakening of employment rights and is further evidence of the exploitation of vulnerable workers under the "needs must" banner. Zero hours contracts are ripe for scrutiny and criticism.
There is no set form for a “zero hours” Contract, but generally it is a contract under which the employer is not obliged to provide a minimum amount of work, but the worker is obliged to be available for any work when it is offered. This is fundamental to how the law views your employment status and thus the rights you benefit from, or do not.
Many casual workers in my experience are simply unaware that they are being asked to sign up to (or have already signed up to) a working arrangement that means in the years ahead, because of the employment status they may have accepted, they will have no right to argue their dismissal is unfair, no right to a Redundancy payment and even sometimes, no holiday pay. It may also mean no family friendly rights such as maternity leave and pay, (so don’t be taken in with the argument that they are flexible and this benefits women - one wonders how you are expected to plan your childcare where there is no obligation to provide you with work).
Satirists have been presented with a story they can riff off for weeks (feudal employment rights in modern Britain… as if!.. etc), but those who work under these arrangements may not see the humour in realising they are on the wrong end of a rights grab that now feels like slight of hand.
For some, and when not working in a unionised environment and not a union member, taking some employment law advice before you sign up can go a long way. Many of these contracts are poorly drafted, very defensive and employer focussed. Some contain post-termination restrictions (for example on your ability to compete), which are entirely inappropriate.  
The starting point is not be afraid to raise the issue and, unless you have no bargaining position alone, seek some amendments to the terms before you sign and preferably before you start working. How this is presented is important but if a sensible approach is taken and with insight to your employer’s position, some employers  are willing to amend the contract. Small changes to a contract can very often have a significant impact on your own position."

By Employment Solicitor Ivor Adair.

Read more about Maternity & Paternity issues including Family Leave and Flexible Working.

Read more about Unfair Dismissal, Restrictive Covenants and Discrimination at Work.