My employment contract says that my hours of work are 'zero'. What does this mean?

One of the most destructive developments to emerge from the financial crisis of 2008 has been an explosion in the use by employers of so-called ‘zero hours’ contracts.

The term ‘zero hours’ is a label, not a legal term. Sometimes employers use other terms such as ‘short-hours contract’, or ‘hours to be agreed’. Under a typical arrangement, the written contract terms state that the employer is not obliged to offer any work, and that the worker is not obliged to accept it. The employer only agrees to pay for hours worked.

There is a widespread misconception that zero hours contract workers have no employment rights. This is not true. Workers on this type of contract are entitled to at least the basic statutory rights available to all workers, including the right to the National Minimum Wage and paid statutory holiday.

Many rights, such as the right to statutory sick pay, depend on you earning above the weekly Lower Earnings Limit for National Insurance Contributions (currently £112, rising to £113 in April 2017). Some zero hours contract workers will not meet this threshold, especially if you have more than one job, as earnings for multiple jobs are not added together. For the same reason, many will not be able to qualify for pensions auto-enrolment (although it may be possible to enrol voluntarily if your earnings are high enough – check your individual position with the Pensions Advisory Service).

Many employment rights, such as the right to Statutory Maternity Pay, or to claim unfair dismissal, depend on a period of continuous service, and again, zero hours contract workers can struggle to meet this requirement. However, if the evidence shows that you have in fact worked a pattern of regular hours over a long period, an employment tribunal could decide that your service has in fact been continuous, regardless of what the contractual documentation says.

In practice, the real problem with zero hours contract working has more to do with the chronic imbalance of power between the two sides, which tends to drive a coach and horses through the protection that is supposed to be provided by many individual workers’ rights. In particular, zero hours contract workers who try to assert their rights face the risk that their employer will retaliate simply by reducing their hours, or not awarding them any more assignments.

For all these reasons, if you have a zero hours contract, the best practical step you can take is to join a union and encourage your fellow workers to do the same. Unions are engaged in campaigning and legal claims to combat the exploitation of zero hours contract workers, and to ensure that basic rights – in particular the right to be paid at least the National Minimum Wage for all the hours they work – are fully protected and properly enforced.

The more people who join a union, the stronger its voice will be. And if enough workers join, the union will be able to demand formal recognition from your employer. This will mean that your employer will be obliged to negotiate wages, holidays and hours with the union. Use our Union Finder tool to find the union best suited to you.

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.