Zero Hours Contracts Explained

zero hour contracts explained

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).

According to the ONS, as at September 2017, 2.9% of the UK workforce had a zero hour contract. That was 900,000 UK workers. This number is still 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 Are The Disadvantages of 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 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’ve 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.

Zero Hour Contract Rights

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.

Refusing Shifts on a Zero Hours Contract

Many workers wonder if they can refuse shifts whilst on a zero hours contract. If you have a zero hours contract you can refuse any shift you are offered. Many employees are told by managers they have to work the shifts the employer requires. However this is not the case. The contract works in the same ways for both parties, and as a worker you have the right to refuse any hours offered to you.

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 20 for England call 03444 111 444

Last Updated on 19 July 2021

13 thoughts on “Zero Hours Contracts Explained

  1. Filgin Veliyath george says:

    I have signed a zero hour contract with one employer who is doing home care.
    As the online induction training is completed I feel I am not competent for this job . Can I refuse the job? Is there any consequences doing so?

    • Safe Workers says:

      Hi Filgin,

      Response for information purposes, and is not professional advice.

      Theoretically workers on a zero hour contract should be able to leave without notice as they are under no obligation to accept work offered. That means they could serve the employer notice and decline any hours offered during the notice period.

      However, in practise you need to read what the contract you have signed says about notice periods and take things from there to ensure you’ve signed a true zero hours contract.

      If you feel uncertain, your local citizens advice should be able to help. Take your contract to them so that they can read the contents and advise you about how to approach things.

  2. Adam Betts says:

    I am on a zero hours contract and my manager has just cancelled my shift only 6 hours before I am due to start. I do not feel this is reasonable and cannot afford to miss out on the income. Is there anything I can do?

    • Safe Workers says:

      Hi Adam – this is for information only, and is not professional advice.

      Unfortunately a zero hours contract does not guarantee any working hours, so there’s not any legal recourse when a shift is cancelled. However, it would be a good idea for you to double check your work contract and see if it mentions anything about notice periods to cancel shifts.

      • Rachel Loftus says:

        Hi, my employer (in community care) hasn’t let me have the 2 days off a week stated in the contract and every day is a full day of 11 hrs. They everyday I have off I’m called in or I’m already book to do work even on my off days. Even though other staff are requesting more work. Also everytime I have mentioned I need a day off I get told and I quote “you’ll be leaving the users vonrable and without care” with makes me feel guilty so I don’t have it off. I have reasontly found out I’m pregnant and have already told work bit the work load hasn’t decreased like it was discussed in the meeting we had. What can I do?

  3. Amanda says:

    I’m a Community Carer on zero hours contract. I told my manager that I want to leave. Contract I signed says I have to give 4 weeks notice. I said I will hand the notice but that from next week I don’t want to accept any work and want to do zero hours. My manager said it doesn’t work like this and that I will have to do my usual hours I have done in past few months, which were every week different but usually between 45 and 55h. I don’t want to accept that as I’m about to change job. Where are my rights? Can I refuse doings these hours? Do I have to give 4 weeks notice as my contract says or can I just drop this job from day to day as I’m on zero hours contract?
    Thank you

    • Safe Workers says:

      Hi Amanda, *Not legal advice, for info only*

      If your contract only makes mention of 4 weeks notice it is likely that you will be able to do as you indicate above. A true zero hours contract will allow you to do this. The ACAS page on zero hours contracts offers clear info on this. If in any doubt at all, contact the ACAS helpline on 0300 123 1100. You can also take your contract to your local citizens advice for assistance.

  4. Emma says:

    I was on a 35hr contract for years now the company put me on a zero hour contract.I still work 35 hours.Is this right ?

  5. Toby says:

    I am on a zero hours contract and have been subject to continued harassment from another member of staff at my place of work over the last month or so.

    I have complained to the owner of the business several times, the final time with a statement of my intent to leave unless this was dealt with.
    This resulted in the perpertrator of said harassment receiving a verbal warning while I took my regular 2 days off work.

    After returning to work after my days off, the harassement continued unabated.

    As a result I informed my employer that his efforts to bring this situation under control had proved unsucessful, I was unable to work either effectively or happily while subject to this harassement, and as a result I would be leaving with immediate effect (after finishing my current shift).
    My employer has accepted my resignation however claims that my contract stipulates a 2 week notice period and he can deduct my pay for the last 2 weeks if I fail to honour it.

    I have responded by informing him that I am happy to provide 2 weeks notice starting from the day of my resignation, however during that period I am only prepared to make myself available for the minimum number of hours specified on my contract (zero)

    Who is in the right here?

    • Safe Workers says:

      Hi Toby – This is not legal advice. You have the right to proceed as you’ve indicated. There are very few situations where an employer has the right to dock your wages. The situation you describe is not one of them. Do contact ACAS or citizens advice if you need help to navigate this issue. Your employer should pay you these wages.

  6. Louis says:

    I have a zero hours contract and was confirmed a shift to work. As part of the contract I am given a lift to work at the place for that given day. Upon arrival no one showed up to take me to the shift. Am I entitled to be paid for the shift?

    • Safe Workers says:

      Hi Louis – this is not legal advice. I’d urge you to check your contract and see if it mentions your transportation arrangements. Zero hours contracts are often very much slanted in the favour of the employer, so unless there’s specific mention of compensation for such an event you may struggle. It might help to contact ACAS if you need advice about what your contract means and how you should approach this situation with your employer.

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