Zero-hours contracts: controversy and your rights

If your company has a ‘zero-hours’ contract policy, yet you are working regular hours, you may find that your rights are being infringed upon.

Recent research indicates that over a million people in the UK are working on zero-hours contracts, and a number of companies and councils have come under fire in the news lately for these contracts. There isn’t much information to date on the real figures on zero-hour contract workers in the UK. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) currently has a figure of 250,000 people employed under them, however this figure is being challenged by CIPD, the professional body for personnel managers.

What is a zero-hours contract?

You may or may not have heard of the term - they are also commonly referred to as casual contracts. They allow an employer to hire staff with no real guarantee of working hours. Typically these are great for employers, because they have a pool of staff handy without all the extra hassles of sick day allowances, and paying staff for hours where business demand is low. However, workers on casual contracts have no guarantee of work and are often given very short notice of when work is available, and miss out on many benefits that are offered by regular permanent or full time contracts. 

Are they very common?

In recent years these have become very common, with nearly 1% of the UK workforce on them according to the ONS, but the figure is suspected to be 4% of the workforce by the CIPD. The most common employers who use casual contracts are typically those in the volunteer services, but the public sector has an astounding 25% of employers using them. 

Although less popular in the private sector, where 17% of businesses use zero-hours contracts, there are actually some well-known names that use them, including: 

  • Sports Direct (over 20,000 of its 25,000 workforce)
  • Cineworld
  • JD Wetherspoon (80% of their staff) 
  • McDonald’s
  • KFC
  • CeX
  • Boots
  • TNT

Why the controversy if they are that common?

One of the primary concerns around zero-hours contracts is that many people don’t even realise that they are on them. Big firms are using the loophole in the law to use these contracts for staff that would have otherwise been employed full time and part time with all the benefits that go along with them. For example, when Sports Direct recently distributed £140m worth of shares to 2,000 full-time staff, it's reported that employees on these temporary contracts didn’t receive any shares, as the distribution was for full time staff only. However, many of the 20,000 workforce at Sports Direct had been staff for many years and work in excess of 40 hours a week regularly. 

The other concern is that staff on these contracts are treated unfairly; often you are at the mercy of the store manager or HR, which means often having to pander to them – being a good worker is often not seen as enough. In addition, the lack of job security means that you cannot plan for your monthly bills, especially big ticket items such as mortgage repayments.

There is also the common feeling of not being able to turn down hours even if they are inconvenient, at the risk of losing any future hours. 

Some of the biggest employee benefits not available with zero-hours contracts are: 

Other concerns are that redundancy pay isn’t typically available to casual workers and that zero-hour staff have difficulty getting Tax Credits if they don’t have enough working hours. The BBC recently reported that people working under zero-hours contracts also earn significantly less per hour

Are my rights being exploited under zero-hours contracts? 

There are currently arguments to say that if you have been employed under a zero-hours contract, but work full time on fixed hours, then your contract has in effect become a full time contract, meaning you should have all the benefits of a full time staff member, and should strive to get the official contract changed. In such situations, a solicitor who specialises in employment contracts will be able to advise you, although the decision is usually made at a Tribunal. 

In addition, there are arguments for unfair dismissal if your contract is cancelled despite you having worked for a long period of time for the company. 

If you feel that you don’t get the hours you deserve due to conflicts with shift managers, store managers or the HR team, or they are favouring other employees over you, you may have a case for unfair treatment at work

If you are working more than the maximum 48 hours a week, but haven’t opted out of the Working Time Regulations, you may have a case. Specifically if you feel that you are being pressurised to work the extra hours or face not getting regular work, you ought to consult an employment lawyer

Whether or not you’re working under a zero-hours contract, if you would like advice on a work-related issue, consult one of our employment lawyers. Alternatively call us on 0808 274 7557 or find your local solicitors here.

Posted in: Employment law

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