Our Employment trainee solicitor, Kashif Aslam, looks at what exactly a zero hour contract entails and what this means for both the employers and employees

Zero Hour Contracts, a relatively new phenomenon, labelled as “flexible” by some and “exploitative” by others.

A zero hour contract is where employers are under no obligation to provide their employee with a minimum number of hours of work, meaning they may not provide any work to the employee for a period of time, a day, a week, a month or even a year.

The uncertainty surrounding the amount of work a person who has a zero hour contract will receive from their employer can lead to it being extremely difficult for those who work zero hour contracts to budget their finances effectively, leading to stressful situations.

In addition to this, some Zero Hour Contracts have clauses which prohibit employees from working in rival companies, meaning if the employer cannot give them any work the employees cannot work for a rival company, making it difficult for them to obtain a steady stream of income and plan for the future.

The unpredictable working hours can also make it difficult to arrange care for dependants at short notice.

The latest Labour Force Survey estimates that 905,000 people reported that they were on a zero hour contract in the period between October to December 2016. This, however, is only an estimate and it is suggested the actual number is higher.

Another key principle of zero hour contracts is that employees can choose whether they wish to undertake the work provided to them, meaning they can choose to refuse a particular piece of work offered by the employer – this is why some argue that zero hour contracts are more “flexible”.

However, zero hour contract employees have expressed concerns that they feel pressured to accept all work offered to them by the employer, as they fear they won’t be offered work again if they refuse.

Employers may exploit this and request employees to come into work at short notice. This puts indirect pressure on the employee to turn up for work as they may fear not being considered for further work in the future if they refuse.

The premise that zero hour contracts offer total flexibility might therefore not be so true.

Proposed Changes

The current government has now indicated plans to allow employees on zero hour fixed contracts to request fixed hours from their employer. There will, however, be no obligation on the employer to do so.

A mere right to request fixed hours seems unlikely to change employers exploiting zero hour contracts.

There will need to be serious guidelines in place for employers considering a request for flexible working hours, that they seriously consider them and that they be able to provide reasoning behind their decision to refuse any such request.

Appropriate remedies should be made available to employees who feel their request has either not been considered properly or refused unreasonably. Without any consequences, it seems highly unlikely employers will take any request for fixed hours work seriously.