12.1.2022

Zero Hours Contracts: What Are Your Rights?

Zero Hours Contracts: What Are Your Rights?

A zero hours contract is a type of working arrangement that’s designed to make work more flexible for both employers and employees. When a business needs extra staff support, they can call on their zero hours workers to come in and cover some shifts. Zero hours workers can accept or decline shifts when they’re offered.

In theory, this is ideal for people who want to manage work around other commitments, such as childcare or studying in the UK. But in reality, it doesn’t always work that way. Many zero hours workers find it difficult to turn down shifts for fear that they’ll be offered fewer hours. Others have reported being bullied or harassed at work.

According to UK government statistics, more than 187,000 non-UK nationals are currently employed in zero hours contracts. This is almost 50,000 more than this time in 2021. If you’re considering taking on a zero hours contract — or you’re already in one — you need to know your rights and responsibilities.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • your rights on a zero hours contract
  • the pros and cons of a zero hours contract
  • how you can protect your income when you work flexible hours.

What are your rights under a zero hours contract?

Zero hours contractors can be classed as employees or workers. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they actually have different legal meanings, so you need to know which one applies to you.

Both workers and employees are entitled to:

  • The National Minimum Wage or National Living Wage — this may differ depending on how old you are
  • Paid holiday — this is usually accrued based on how many hours you’ve worked
  • Pay for being on call — your employer must pay you for the time you’re on call, even if you aren’t actually called in to work
  • Rests and breaks — you’re entitled to regular breaks and days off, just like permanent staff.

If you’re classed as a zero hours employee, you also have other rights, including:

  • Protection from unfair dismissal — your employer can’t sack or dismiss you without having grounds to do so
  • Protection against detrimental treatment — your employer can’t stop giving you hours or turn down training requests without good reason, and they must protect you from workplace bullying and harassment
  • Notice period — if you want to leave or your employer asks you to leave, at least 1 week’s notice is required
  • Pensions and parental leave — you may be able to qualify through your earnings and/or length of service — talk to your HR department to see if you’re eligible.

Your contract might outline other rights you have as a zero hours worker or employee. Read your contract thoroughly before you sign. If there’s anything you’re unsure about, ask the employer to clarify it (in writing) before you agree to it. If you don’t know whether you’re classed as a worker or an employee, ask your employer.

The pros and cons of zero hours contracts

Zero hours contracts can give you the flexibility you need to manage all your commitments. If you’re a student, parent, or carer, it means you can work when you’re available, and turn down hours when you’re busy (for example, during exam season or school holidays). If you have another source of stable household income, it can provide your household with some extra cash when you need it.

But zero hours contracts are controversial. Employers have much more power than workers, as they’re the ones issuing the work. A report by the University of Hertfordshire found that many people feel that flexibility is controlled by the manager, and that zero hours contracts have a negative impact on worker wellbeing. Another study found that the wellbeing of zero hours contract workers is 12.2% worse than other workers on average.

CIPD research found that only 57% of zero hours contract workers actually had the right to turn down work in practice. So many people feel pressured to take all the hours offered to them. And many employers don’t compensate workers if they cancel shifts at short notice.

It’s also more difficult to budget and save for the future of your family when you don’t know how many hours you’ll be given each week. You may feel unable to commit to other plans in case you’re offered work. And landlords may be less likely to take you on as a tenant because of your unstable income.

But zero hours contracts can be a good option for those who can’t commit to a full-time job or a set number of hours each week. So if you want or need to work on a zero hours contract, how can you protect your wellbeing and your income when you work flexible hours?

How can you protect your income on a zero hours contract?

  • Join a trade union — trade unions are there to give you advice and protect your rights as a worker or employee. They may also cover the cost of employment tribunal fees if you experience any unfair or illegal working practices.
  • Raise your questions and concerns — ask your manager if you have any questions about the zero hours working process. If a colleague is mistreating you, raise your concerns with the HR department. ACAS has some good advice for how to raise a problem at work.
  • Ask for a permanent employment contract — if you’ve worked there for 6 months or more and you want more stability, consider asking to switch to a permanent contract that guarantees you a set number of hours each week, and caters for flexible work arrangements.
  • Don’t feel pressured into taking shifts you don’t want — try to give the employer as much notice as possible so they can find someone else to cover the shift. If you find that your hours are reduced after turning down shifts, ask your manager about the reduction in hours. If you’re an employee, this may be classed as detrimental treatment.
  • Use employer review sites like Glassdoor to find out about the employer — good employers are more likely to use zero hours contracts as they’re intended, so learn about the experiences other workers have had with this employer.

Learn more about life in the UK

Adjusting to new working practices isn’t the only change you’ll need to make if you’re new to the UK. Learn more about UK life and how it can impact your finances in this Bloom Learning Hub series:

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