Expert view: Zero hours contracts - what's all the fuss about?

Victoria Mitchell of Farleys looks behind the headlines generated by zero hours contracts.

There has been a great deal of negative press about zero hours contracts in the media in the past few weeks.

It is now thought that in excess of one million UK workers are employed under such contracts, with companies including McDonald’s, Wetherspoons and even Buckingham Palace being found to employ workers under such terms.

But what are zero hours contracts in terms of employment law and what is all the fuss about?

Zero hours contracts are not actually defined in law. In practical terms, however, they are a type of casual employment agreement in which the employer does not guarantee any set or minimum hours; paying the worker only for the hours they work.

Part of the reason for the recent controversy surrounding zero hours contracts is that under such an employment agreement, employees are not afforded many of the rights that employees would normally receive. These include fairly basic things such as paid holiday entitlement and sick leave.

Traditionally popular in leisure businesses, where demand for staff can fluctuate depending on factors such as the weather and therefore allowing employers flexibility and reduced risk of overstaffing, several other types organisations have recently been seen to increase their use of zero hours contracts.

These include retails businesses, charities and even local councils. It is their use in these environments that has caused the furore, with critics suggesting that organisations are simply using this type of arrangement to flout their employment law duties.

Another criticism is that zero hours contracts offer no guaranteed weekly or monthly income for the staff employed on them, making it difficult to plan and budget. Certainly, there is particular concern whereby the employers include ‘exclusive’ conditions in their contracts, meaning that employees are not allowed to work elsewhere if they needed to supplement their income at any point. Arranging childcare and calculating income to claim benefits or tax credits are also problems associated with flexible working hours.

There are of course benefits – both for employers as well as employees – of using zero hours contracts. Namely, these surround flexibility – allowing businesses to avoid situations where they are overstaffed during unexpected quiet days or spells. It should be noted that the employees have the right to decline work they are offered - allowing them to be flexible and balance their work and personal lives.

Employers need to be aware that there is mounting pressure for a change in the law relating to zero hours contract and if they are currently employing staff under these terms, should perhaps start to consider how they would adapt if such a law does come into force. It may be that employees could be transferred onto fixed hours contracts instead – a move which some of the businesses criticised in the press in the past few weeks have already started to make.

Employers should also be aware that if they originally employed staff under zero hours contracts but the hours that those employees work have become fixed and regular, contractual hours could become an implied term. As such, an employee could by virtue become entitled to ‘normal’ working rights and could bring a claim against an employer who refuses to afford these to them. Victoria Mitchell Farleys