How to reduce the risk of zero-hours contracts - as published in Real Business


3 mins

Posted on 02 Sep 2013

Businesses have long used zero-hours contracts as a flexible and low cost way of dealing with fluctuations in demand. However, the use of these contracts has been abused by some employers, and workers (generally those in low paid jobs) have been exploited. Pressure from the media, trade unions, etc. to ban their use appears to be growing. But are they all bad?

What exactly is a zero hours contract?

There is no legal definition of a zero-hours contract. In simple terms, the worker is retained under a contract where there is no guarantee of work each week. Crucially, if there is no work, then there is no pay and therefore no guaranteed income.

How bad is the problem?

Despite the recent furore over their use in the press, businesses have actually been employing people on the contracts for decades. So, why are they so popular now? 

The lengthy recession meant that employers could not afford to keep permanent staff and now they are understandably concerned about committing to full or even part-time contracts. Casual workers provide employers with greater flexibility and additional capacity to deal with changes in demand. The economy provides some explanation, but only part of it.

In 2012, the CBI reported a correlation between the increased uptake of these contracts and the introduction of the Agency Worker Regulations 2010, which gave agency workers additional rights and made them a less attractive proposition.

Are the days of the zero-hours contract numbered?

Whilst there are advantages and disadvantages to zero-hours contracts, it looks like changes may be afoot. Earlier this year, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Vince Cable, concerned that employers have been abusing such contracts, announced a review of their use. It now appears that the Government is considering legislating so that zero-hours workers cannot be restricted to working for only one employer. It has, however, ruled out a complete ban. This suggests that zero-hours contracts are here to stay, but it is likely that guidance on their proper use will be provided.

How to reduce the risk of using zero-hours contracts

Whilst the use of zero-hours contracts is lawful and is a good source of additional manpower, there are a number of potential pitfalls associated with their use. 

Companies looking to reduce their risk of using the contracts, should consider the following options:

•To avoid employment rights:

  • Use a carefully drafted contract, which reflects accurately the relationship between the company and the worker;
  • Beware of getting into a pattern of regularly offering casual workers work;
  • Do not require the worker to accept each and every assignment (i.e. ensure there is no mutuality of obligation which could give rise to an employment relationship); and
  • Allow the worker to work elsewhere between assignments.

The articles published on this website, current at the date of publication, are for reference purposes only. They do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice about your own circumstances should always be sought separately before taking any action.