Home > Employment Law > Zero Hours Contracts Explained

Zero Hours Contracts Explained

By: Abigail Taylor - Updated: 15 Feb 2021 | comments*Discuss
Zero Hours Contract Employer Employees

What are zero hour contracts? Essentially these are employment contracts with no guaranteed hours. This means that employees are not guaranteed any work by their employers (and therefore no pay).

Around 2.3% of the UK workforce has a zero hour contract and this number is rising. Zero hour contracts are also closely linked to low guaranteed hour contracts, for example those which offer less than 20 hours per week. If these were included in the statistics, the figure would be considerably higher. The number of zero hour contracts also greatly fluctuates depending upon the time of year, with peaks in mid-Summer and around Christmas.

Why are there so many zero hour contracts?

Zero hour contracts are used by many employers in order to secure flexible employees. These types of contracts are particularly popular in the catering and retail industries where the required staffing levels vary at different times of year, and on occasion at short notice. Employers only need pay employees on zero hour contracts when they are needed to work, and don't have to spend money on wages for staff that they do not need.

Zero hour contracts can also provide a benefit to those seeking flexible, occasional or part-time employment. Typically those on zero hour contracts are students, or the semi-retired. There is also a higher percentage of women, who often use zero hour contracts as a way of securing flexible working hours whilst raising young children.

Zero hour contracts are used by many large brands such as:

  • JD Wetherspoon
  • Sports Direct
  • Cineworld

(Interestingly many workers at Buckingham Palace also have zero hour contracts!)

What is the problem with zero-hour contracts?

"I work at a bar on a zero hour contract. When I started, my manager said that they could give me around 25 to 30 hours a week. That started ok, but now I don't usually get more than 20. Sometimes it's only 10 hours! What can I do?"

According to the Office for National Statistics, around a third of those on zero hour contracts want more hours. Unfortunately this can be the problem with zero hour contracts; no matter what you were told would be the approximate number of hours that you could be offered each week, your contract does not guarantee you any hours.

TIP: When signing an employment contract, make sure that you are happy to only receive the minimum number of hours on the contract. For example if your contract says that you are only guaranteed 8 hours per week, are you happy to only receive that number (and only be paid for this)?

"I am on a zero hour contract and I have been suspended with no investigation and no reason and my next week's rota has had my hours taken off me. Is this against the law?"

Zero hour contracts offer workers little stability; employers are not obliged to provide workers with any hours and so can simply choose not to give any hours, without providing a reason for this. However just because your employer has not provided a reason does not mean that you cannot ask for one - your employer may be honest with you and be able to tell you how likely it is that they will require you to work in the future on current business level predictions. If they will not likely require you to work the number of hours that you need, or do not provide a good reason for cutting your hours, it may unfortunately be time to seek new employment.

"I am on a zero hour contract and the manager decides who gets what shifts. Everyone sucks up to him all the time. I'm worried that the guard on one of our machines is loose. Should I say something? I am worried that if I cause trouble, I won't get any work."

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has raised concerns that employers can take advantage of their power to allocate working hours under zero hour contracts and use this as a management tool. This could lead to favouritism and could decrease safety in the workplace, as employees are scared of appearing to cause trouble and potentially then not receiving as many working hours/shifts as a result.

Do I really have a zero hour contract?

'My written contract does not guarantee me any work hours, but for the last 6 months, I've worked regular shifts - 9 to 5 Monday to Thursday, 8 to 4 Friday. Is this a zero hour contract?'

The Employment Appeals Tribunal in Pulse Healthcare Ltd v Carewatch Care Services Ltd & Ors (2012) determined that employment contracts must reflect the true nature of the employment. Zero hour contracts are meant to be a casual arrangement to enable employers to cater for changing levels of demand. However if a worker on a zero hour contract regularly works the same hours, then their employment contract reflects this, regardless of what their written contract states.

Having worked the same regular shifts for 6 months, it is likely that your true employment contract is not a zero hour contract. A regular hour employment contract gives you greater statutory employment rights than a zero hour contract.

"I have been working for a company on a zero hour contract for the last 3 years, working at least 35 hours a week. I have been offered a better job elsewhere but could take up to three months to start, because of the relationship I have with my managers I thought I would let them know I would be leaving to give them plenty of notice but not formally hand in my notice. I have now been told this morning that they want me gone at the end of May even though my start date for my new job isn't until the 1st July, which will mean I will be out of a job for 1 month without any pay. Is there anything I can do?"

If you are on a zero hour contract, then the company is entitled to reduce your hours to zero throughout June, as they are not obliged to provide you with any working hours. (The exception would be if they were discriminating against you for a "protected" reason, such as your gender, ethnicity, age or sexual orientation. It does not seem that that is the case here; it seems that they are more upset that you are leaving.)The main question here seems to be whether you are in reality still on a zero hours contract, despite what the written document states. If you have had a regular working pattern, working the same days and hours for the last three years, then you would have a reasonable argument to say that you in fact have a regular hours contract and so are entitled to a minimum number of hours until your notice period expires. If you wish to pursue this route, it may be worth consulting an employment lawyer or your local Citizens Advice Bureau for assistance.

Rights for those with a zero hour contract

Workers on a zero hour contract have the following employment rights:

"I'm on zero hours contract and some weeks get very few hours. Other weeks my employers send me a rota with say 40 hours on it then ring me during the week to add more hours, they say I can't refuse to do them. I thought zero hours contracts worth both ways; they don't have to give me any hours and I don't have to work all the hours offered."

(1) Workers cannot be forced to only work for one employer during this period and may refuse work offered. You are not therefore obliged to accept all the additional hours offered.

(2) Workers are entitled to be paid for the hours that they have worked, travelling time (if this is part of the job as opposed to getting to the job - eg a carer travelling from one appointment to another) and for any time spent on call.

"I'm on zero hours contract, I tile kitchens for a housing association, if I'm in the middle of one job does my employer have the right to terminate that job to send me to another which they have agreed a time with the tenant without consulting me about that time before agreeing it, this is despite the fact that I won't get paid for the job I'm on until it is finished, I don't get paid by the hour, I get paid a price for each job."

You are entitled to be paid for all the work that you have carried out within a reasonable amount of time. As your agreement is that payment is due upon completion of a job, this will be within a reasonable amount of time from the date of completion. Your employer is entitled to move you from job to job, or even no longer require you to complete a job, but must pay you for work done. As on your payment agreement, this disrupts your cash flow, you may be best to speak to your employer to agree what happens in that situation. For example if they require you to prioritise another job before completing your current one, are they willing to pay you part of the cost of the completed works to reflect the work carried out up to that point? They may have genuine reasons why other jobs need to be prioritised and just simply not thought about the impact of this in light of your current payment arrangements.

(3) Zero hour workers are entitled to statutory annual leave and national minimum wage in the same way as regular workers.

(4) Zero hour workers are still entitled to work in a safe environment, in the same way as any other worker.

Most zero hour contracts will give staff "worker" employment status. These workers have generally the same employment rights as regular hour workers, although breaks in the hours worked (for example if you are not required to work at all for a period 3 weeks) may affect rights that accrue over time. A full calendar week without work from Sunday to Saturday is required to create a break in employment.

(5) Zero hour workers are entitled to holiday pay. Where there is no break in employment, the worker should arrange with their employer when annual leave is taken. If there are periodic breaks in employment, the worker should receive payment for any accrued annual leave which has not been taken.If you consider that your employment rights have been breached, you should:

  1. Speak to your employer. (It may be that they have not realised there has been a breach and will immediately take steps to remedy the situation going forwards.)
  2. If your employer is not receptive to your concerns, instigate the company's grievance procedure.
  3. If you remain unhappy, notify the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) of your concerns.

Telephone: 0300 123 1100
Textphone: 18001 030 0123 1100
Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm
Saturday, 9am to 1pm

If you are unable to resolve the issue via the Acas conciliation process, you may be able to refer the matter to The Employment Tribunal. It is however always best to seek legal advice from an employment law specialist or your local Citizens Advice Bureau before progressing down this route.

For any queries about your employment contract or rights, you can seek free and independent legal advice from Citizens Advice Bureau: for Wales call 03444 77 20 20for England call 03444 111 444

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[Add a Comment]
I am a school driver on zero hoursand only paid for hours worked in week but expected to fill up with petrol at weekends but do not get paid for this.Is that legal?
Mon - 21-Nov-20 @ 8:57 PM
Work for Amazon, called in to work when I arrived they say they booked too many people in and I have to go home. Just spent 2 hours and £20 getting there anything I can do?
Biggles - 20-Sep-20 @ 5:32 AM
For 8 weeks I have been covering the "weekends" of another employee, Tue/Wed 9-5. My the owner or manager always confirms this 24hrs before. On Monday I was asked to work 9-5 on the Tuesday. At 10am, my manager is contacted to not have me turn up to work for that day but I'm already on site and working. I am relieved of my days duties at 11am, when my manager arrives in site, and given 2hrs pay. Do I have any rights? What would be the proper protocol for this situation?
Millie - 4-Aug-20 @ 10:34 PM
Hi, In my place of work, which is a very busy pizza shop, we are given shifts (for example 3pm-8pm) but when it reaches the end of my shift I can be told that I need to stay on for another half hour/hour after my shift has finished due to it being busy. I am often reasonable and understand that it's busy so often stay on to help but that isn't conceivable every shift. I can't always stay on past my finishing time but when I say that I can't stay on I get told that I have to and I can't leave till I'm told I can go. That doesn't seem legal to me. Is this allowed?
Dan - 4-Aug-20 @ 9:26 PM
I am as a delivery driver in Domino's Pizza. Every week on Thursday the manager sends schedule. The manager said that I have to work extra hours if he so decides. I refused, because he talks about extra hours 15 minutes before the end of the working day. I have small children and I plan my time according to the work schedule. The manager said that I have no right to refuse and should stay at work. Is he right? Thank you
Maria - 28-Jul-20 @ 9:51 PM
Hi iv worked for a company for the last 7 years and we was tuped over 3 years ago from another company. I work 40 hours plus per week weve been on furlough pay since April and now had a email from work saying that how last pay will be August has they have no work to offer me. Iv emailed hr asking about redundancy pay but they say im on a casual worker. So im not entitled to any statutory redundancy. Could you please advise me please. My job title is cafe assistant manager.
Lol - 8-Jul-20 @ 4:09 PM
Iv worked for a company for seven years we was tuped over from an other company 3 years ago Iv been on furlough pay since march. I work average 40 hours aweek. We got an email from work saying they now have no work to offer us until next march april. So has of end of August is how last pay day. Can we get redundancy money has hr have said where not entitled to statuary redundancy. Thank you
Lol - 8-Jul-20 @ 4:01 PM
Is it legal for my employer to pay me for two hours of work when I have only worked one. This had been the case for three years. Her justification for this is the council pays her to pay us, for private care, it is not straight from her pocket.
Red - 7-Jul-20 @ 5:11 PM
Hi I'm a bank worker for the NHS on admin side and up till covid29 I have worked 24hours on average ever week. Since covid19 I have not worked can I be furloughed or do I have to get universal credit
Jaymil - 4-Jun-20 @ 8:50 PM
My husband works for a car hire company, working very long shifts, sometimes 15 hours a day and then starting very early again the next morning. He never gets a break or time to stop and eat, although half an hour is taken off his wages each day (this we worked out to 2 weeks unpaid every year!) He has also been told that unless they approve holidays (although given months of notice and booked early to get a good price) they will not pay holiday. The area manager does not care about anyone as long as they are all working as many hours as possible. What can be done? There is no time to go and look for a better job working all these hours, it seems they have no rights? If they complain, life is made very difficult or no work. .
Ali - 9-May-19 @ 11:56 AM
My work place has closed for a refurbishment and I am a working mother 9-3 mon -Friday they r closed and have shipped us out to other places which is too far away from my children one who is still dependent on me. I have tried one shift this week which was a total nightmare trying to get to and now my child care has let me down hence cannot do the 16hr left to do this week and I have had a call from my boss telling me I have to work these and to find other arrangements for my kids which I don’t have so he has said he will tell the main boss that I have refused to work and that I should be working during the three weeks even though other employees (without kids) have the time off??? I feel like I am being bullied into working when I am the only one struggling etc and everyone else just has the time off?? I am now worried I will lose my job for saying I cannot work at another place and will attend training days and return once my place of work is back open like everyone else...
Missjane - 9-Apr-19 @ 10:42 PM
If my work is cancelled at short notice within 48 hours I can still claim for the hours I would have worked. Am I legally bound to then accept other work due to original work being cancelled?
Sadie - 1-Apr-19 @ 6:06 PM
I left my job last Sunday my manger and boss aren’t answering any messages. I am owed £450 on the 5th April for the work I did in March. I am worried he will not pay me. What can I do about this? Can I claim it back from him? Can I sue? Can I send him to court?
Beth - 22-Mar-19 @ 7:21 PM
What are the rules and regulations of breaks when working a 15 hour shift?
Hazel May - 16-Feb-19 @ 11:36 PM
I have worked for a company for over a year, I have been given no contact to sign and get ignored if I ask for one? There are four of us working there and on average work over a 50hour week over 6 days. We can get a text anytime up to 11pm to tell us if there is work the next day. Lately though there has been no work for any of us and have not have any communication from them to tell us what is going on. If we request a day off we get told it's too short notice or just no Incase any jobs come in! If for any reason one of us need a day off and actually take it off the management then throw a fit and childishly ignore you or refuse to give you work even of the work load is rediculous. We've tried to approach the management but it's like talking to sulking kids!
G - 11-Jan-19 @ 10:45 AM
Is a zero hours conract worker entitled to overtime if they work more than 8 hrs per shift and/or weekends and into early hours of morning - catering industry? Thanks.
Jools - 24-Nov-18 @ 12:32 PM
hey, my manager keeps changing the hours on the rota at work. an i've missed a few shifts because I've not looked at the rota after i've recorded my hours. there is a sign that says rota is subject to change. but i would assume that they would have to discuss a change in hours with you before doing so. i work 30hours in customer services and do shifts that do change weekly
Ben - 11-Nov-18 @ 7:43 PM
Been working in care home 15 yrs, chose 3 yrs ago to step down as head chef, and work as Bank. Have been doing 20-25 hrs a week since 2015, change of management last summer, told head chef no bank, laid me off. Checked with our Head office HR/OPS director, no knowledge of this, and confirmed I'm still on payroll. And would be offered sickness and annual leave cover. Apparently the Manager had directed the head chef to five me no hours.. Had no work since March this year. Is this a redundancy or unfair treatment /dismissal situation? I'd appreciate advice on how I should proceed
ACA - 4-Oct-18 @ 12:26 PM
I am a carer on Zero hours ,I had a meeting yesterday and was told the company I work for was going to stop paying for our weekly pass,also I don't get paid for travelling in between jobs which could be up to an hour a day.I would be grateful if you could give me some advice on this. Many Thanks
Sissy - 8-Sep-18 @ 2:51 PM
can an employer advertise a job without stating that it's a zero hours job
pixie-C - 20-Jul-18 @ 5:07 PM
I work for a social care company. That is three thing to refuse to pay staff if a timesheet is not given in by day 2 of the next working week. Is this lawful and what can I quote to the employer?
Irideforlife - 9-Jun-18 @ 11:15 PM
Do I have any rights as a zero hour co tract worker when I am being bullied at work. Someone has taken a dislike to me and threatened to make sure I don’t keep my job for long- what rights do I have ?
Robin - 29-May-18 @ 7:29 PM
rellie- Your Question:
I can but there is not enough time to fit any in, by the time I get to their house I would only have half an hour to do a treatment, pack up and get back to work. I’ve been told to read the policies in between treatments for which they will give me a half hour payment when all are read and signed for. There is at least seven hours reading there.

Our Response:
If your employer chooses to work this way they are not doing anything wrong, especially if they are finding the appointments for you and you're using their salon etc. If you want consecutive appointments ask them about it and see if they will negotiate different terms.
SafeWorkers - 30-Apr-18 @ 3:00 PM
I can but there is not enough time to fit any in, by the time I get to their house I would only have half an hour to do a treatment, pack up and get back to work. I’ve been told to read the policies in between treatments for which they will give me a half hour payment when all are read and signed for. There is at least seven hours reading there.
rellie - 28-Apr-18 @ 7:00 PM
Rellie - Your Question:
I work in a zero hours giving beauty treatments. I get hourly appointments each week but sometimes there are gaps in between. One day I had three appointments with one at 9.30 and one at 12.00, one at 2.30 and this is an extreme of the gaps I have. I don’t get paid for the gaps and only earn three hours pay for 6 hours work in this way. Is this legal?

Our Response:
You're not working in between the treatments. Are you allowed to go elsewhere during that time to work with other clients?
SafeWorkers - 27-Apr-18 @ 10:55 AM
I work in a zero hours giving beauty treatments. I get hourly appointments each week but sometimes there are gaps in between. One day I had three appointments with one at 9.30 and one at 12.00, one at 2.30 and this is an extreme of the gaps I have. I don’t get paid for the gaps and only earn three hours pay for 6 hours work in this way. Is this legal?
Rellie - 24-Apr-18 @ 1:15 PM
I have worked a year with regular hours 6mths days 0700 to 1400 3days one week 4 the next and the last 6mths of which spent on nights following a pattern 36 hours every week.... now been told no work for the part time staff as want fulltime... now this is 0hour I have been forced into working a "pattern" sale 000to0800 every shift and 3 shifts is this not employment status?
Kim - 7-Apr-18 @ 5:52 PM
Hi i'm on a zero hour co tract at McDonalds however for atleast a year or 2 I have had guaranteed 5 shifts a week minimum. I recently had to hand in a sick note for two weeks due to having a chest infection and flu and was told if I handed the note in then shifts would be taken away from me and as stated i'm now being punished and have been given less shifts due to me being off.
Dylan - 6-Mar-18 @ 8:55 AM
I am s single mom and have a 5 yr old who has started school full time.My job as a beautician started as a 16hr a week zero hrs, some weeks i worked 22hrs, i am claiming working tax credits and for the past 3 weeks i have only done 20hrs.I cant live on the wage and working tax credits will stop, so i have been told.I love the job i do and dont want to leave.I dont no what to do for the best. Please give me some advise.
Nettie - 7-Feb-18 @ 9:32 PM
Jo - Your Question:
I've been in an accident at home which involved having an operation and I currently can't work which I work for an agency so I don't get a wage and now I'm trying to find out about benefits etc I could claim till I get the all clear from the hospital

Our Response:
The Turn 2 us website should be of help as you can enter your personal details and circumstances.
SafeWorkers - 5-Dec-17 @ 2:56 PM
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