Does zero hours mean having zero rights?

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“Zero hours contract” is the popular term for a casual worker engaged on an ad hoc basis by a business. The business isn’t obliged to offer work, and, in some contracts, the worker isn’t obliged to accept any work. Businesses argue that this way of working grants flexibility to both sides, and can work effectively in holiday periods, like Christmas, when retailers are at their busiest, and individuals want a little extra spending money.

But, employee representative bodies and trade unions are critical of zero hours contracts, arguing that they are a way to abuse vulnerable, low income workers. The Office of National Statistics found that from April to June 2017, those on zero hours contracts were primarily young, female and/or part-time. So-called “gig economy” workers, like Deliveroo and Uber drivers, in addition to agency workers, are also likely to be engaged on similar contracts.

The Government is now looking to improve the rights of these workers, albeit modestly, by today announcing new proposed legislation, requiring businesses to provide details of the workers’ rights, including pay and sick leave, when their contract starts – similar to a written statement of particulars provided to employees. Under the legislation, workers would also be able to request more predictable hours, among other rights. Holiday pay would also change, with businesses having to calculate pay based on 52 weeks, rather than the current norm of 12 weeks. And, the employment tribunal fine against a business showing malice, spite, or gross oversight would increase from £5,000 to £20,000.

These new changes may enable a more structured flexibility, with both employer and employee getting what they want out of a less rigid arrangement than that of an employment relationship.

Those advocating for workers argue that the proposed reforms do not go far enough, but the Government has agreed with the Taylor Review (on which the reforms are based) that to ban zero hour contracts completely would hinder more people than it helped – as those relying on a flexible working arrangement, like carers, would be unable to sustain a more structured relationship.

With these types of working relationships appearing in the media on a regular basis, these new reforms are extremely prevalent for both businesses and workers. This legislation may be the starting point for what is to come in the future, with workers’ rights being at the forefront.