What is a zero hours contract and what are my rights?

Sometimes employers may offer to hire employees on what is known as a zero-hours contract. This contract is a mutual agreement between a worker and their employer, where the employer does not have an obligation to provide the worker with any fixed minimum hours, and the worker has no obligation to accept any work that is offered to them.

What are my employment rights with a zero hour contract?

A person is generally referred to as a ‘worker’ in a zero hours contract, and will have many of the same employment rights as employees, including:

  • entitlement to the National Minimum Wage
  • protection against unlawful deduction of wages
  • the statutory minimum level of holiday pay (pro-rated to hours worked)
  • protection from discrimination
  • statutory minimum length of rest breaks

However, they will not have all the same rights that employees have e.g. a pension and redundancy pay.

Should I take a zero hour contract?

As you might expect, the decision will be different for every individual. If you are lucky enough to not be reliant on the income, then they can be a great way of maintaining a flexible work-life balance. For those who need to earn a regular income to pay the bills, a zero hours contract can be stressful as you have no guaranteed income or regular hours, which can put a great deal of pressure on you to accept any hours offered.

Often, the important thing is how a specific employer, or a manager, treats their zero hours workers. We do hear many positive stories of people on zero hours contracts who have a great working relationship with their employer. Sadly, we also hear of some employers who use the lack of protection to the detriment of their employees. We recommend that you first ensure you understand your rights under a zero hours contract so you are well informed, and then secondly do your research on any specific employer to ensure that you know what you can expect. Most high quality employers will be comfortable with you speaking to an existing colleague so you can ask how things work in practice.

Below we outline some of the key pros and cons of zero hour contracts so you can hopefully make a well informed decision on what is right for you…

What are the pros?

pros of zero hours contract

Flexibility

If you have other commitments in your life e.g. sometimes you are required to look after grandchildren, or you’d just like more of a work-life balance, then a zero hours contract can be an appealing option. You can take on work as and when it comes available, but you don’t have to – which makes it much easier to fit work around your personal life rather than the other way around.

No commitment

If you’ve always been committed to long hours in high pressure roles, then it’s understandable that you may have reached the stage where you’d prefer to take on a more casual role, that will give you time to focus on other areas of your life. A zero hours contract doesn’t force you to commit to any hours at all which can put you back in control of your work life balance.

Multiple jobs

It’s a great way to pack in the hours as they become available, whilst still giving you the option to work elsewhere. Because people on zero hours contracts aren’t committed to a certain amount of hours, they are allowed to work in different jobs to boost their income or simply enjoy a bit of variety. It’s worth noting that some employers did use to have exclusivity clauses in their contracts, which quite rightly became deemed unfair in 2015 and are no longer enforceable.

Improve your CV

Even if you would prefer to be an ‘employee’ working in a part or full-time position, it can sometimes still make sense to take on a zero hours contract in the interim. All experience can be used to your advantage, especially on your CV – and it’s still a great opportunity to potentially learn some new skills and stay active in your community. Additionally, because you are not committed to any set hours, you should also have no issues taking time off for future interviews and it could also avoid having to explain prolonged periods of unemployment to prospective employers.

May lead to permanent work

Whilst your contract may start off as zero hours, once you get your foot in the door and start networking, you’ll be in the right place to keep an eye out for part-time and full-time roles that become available. If you do a good job, there’s also a chance that you may be rewarded with a part-time or full-time contract in your zero hours role.

What are the cons?

No fixed income

People who agree to a zero hours contract will not have a fixed income in the same way that part-time or full-time employees, which can lead to feelings of unrest and uncertainty about keeping up with things like rent and bill payments. You may find yourself not being offered any work one month and then being offered lots the following month, meaning you’re scrabbling to make up for your loss the month before and therefore feel pressured to do hours you didn’t want to do. However, you may be able to get extra financial help by claiming government benefits.

Find out more about benefits at GOV.UK

Not entitled to the same benefits as employees

Whilst you will still receive many of the same basic rights as employees, you’ll usually miss out on things like redundancy pay and/or a pension. This can sometimes leave workers feeling unappreciated and undervalued, especially when at work, you’re working just as hard as permanent members of staff.

Unpredictable hours

If you are constantly waiting for work to become available then, you may often feel on edge and reluctant to make other plans in case you are offered work at the last minute. You may also feel obliged to cancel plans and take the work (even though you are under no obligation at all) simply because of worries about not being offered work in the future. Some people can deal with this if they aren’t financially dependent on their zero hours contract and are okay with saying no and waiting for the next opportunity, but for those who rely on the money, waiting for the next opportunity can be very stressful.

The conclusion

zero hours contract

There are both pros and cons to zero hours contracts and only you will know whether it’s a suitable option for you in your current situation.

Many decide to view a zero hours contract as a temporary solution where they can focus on learning new skills and meeting new people until they find a more permanent position, whilst others are perfectly happy taking work if they can and saying no if they can’t. As with many of these things, it will largely depend on the individual employer and how they treat their zero hours workers. When used by a high quality, empathetic employer, they can provide a useful outline for a flexible ongoing relationship for both parties. The problems almost always occur when an employer uses the lack of protection in a zero hours contract, to treat its employees unfairly, so always try to do your research on a future employer before signing up.

Have you worked on a zero hours contract? What was your experience? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].

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