In the Queen’s speech on 4th June 2014 the Government announced their intention to introduce measures to crack down on abuse of zero hours contracts. No detail is included as to what is meant by abuse.

The subsequent commentary has referred to the exclusivity provisions often included in such contracts and indeed that does seem to be an abuse. However, more frequently employees on zero hours contracts believe that if they raise an issue or concern or are unable to work some hours offered to them the consequence will be that there will then no longer be any hours for them.

Employers on the other hand often think it will be a panacea for some of the issues employing staff creates and it does suit some but it can lead to transitory less engaged staff.  Like everything, I suspect they have a place but the recent enthusiasm for such contracts may turn out to have been misplaced in a more buoyant economy.  In this blog I identify some of the legal issues such contracts raise.

What is the current legal position on zero-hours contracts?

There is no legal definition. It is usually thought to mean a contract of employment under which the employee has no set hours and is paid only for the hours worked. At its root is the agreement that there is no obligation on the employer to provide work. This in itself creates a number of legal issues.

Legal issues on zero hours contracts

  • The employment status of the individual is unclear — are they an employee, a worker or self-employed.  In employment the status of the individual dictates their legal rights. This lack of clarity creates confusion.
  • As with all contracts in assessing employment status a tribunal look not just at the contract but at what is happening in practice. A relationship that starts as a zero hours contract may, over time, evolve into something different.
  • Such workers still have rights under the Equality Act indeed the profile of the zero hours workforce may be indirectly discriminatory and lead to claims by part-time workers, one gender or one age group

The reality of zero hours contracts is that the individual’s legal rights will depend on their status and the duration of the relationship and what is agreed in the contract. They have created an uncertainty of employment for many who work under them.

However, the question really is whether that is a consequence of zero hours contracts or a consequence of the raft of changes to employment rights that have been introduced in recent years. I will blog separately about the rights of workers and employees with no qualifying period of employment, the rights available to employees regardless of their length of employment and the rights employees accrue as their employment continues.


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