Zero-hours contracts: Are they legal and what rights do they give me?

Contrary to common misconceptions, zero-hours contract workers are entitled to sick and holiday pay. Here’s everything you need to know about the controversial employment model

Zero-hours contracts, often described as insecure work or casual contracts, are commonplace in the hospitality and retail sector, and can in theory offer flexibility for both employer and employee.

They are also increasing. TUC general secretary Paul Nowak has accused the government of overseeing a “huge explosion in insecure jobs”. Official statistics showed zero-hours contracts hit a record high towards the end of 2022.

The government and employers have defended zero-hours contracts for the flexibility they offer workers. The minister for work and pensions, Mel Stride, recently suggested that over-50s should consider working in the gig economy to deliver takeaways, or taking up other flexible work traditionally done by younger people.

He touted the benefits of working for delivery app Deliveroo, saying: “what we’re seeing here is the ability to log on and off anytime you like, no requirement to have to do a certain number of hours over a certain period of time, which is driving huge opportunities”.

But workers themselves point out that the instability places all of the financial risk onto the employee, who can lose hours of valuable time while they wait for work which is not guaranteed. 

Zero-hours contracts are both highly controversial, and come with complications.  We’re here to answer your questions around zero-hours contracts so you don’t get taken advantage of.


What are zero-hours contracts?

A zero-hours contract refers to any type of contract where the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum number of working hours to the employee. So one week the employee could be asked to work 24 hours, the next it could be seven, and the next it could be dropped to none at all. 

Equally, the employee is not obliged to work a set number of hours, so one week they might have high availability, and the next they may only have a couple of hours free to work. The hospitality sector, care work, deliveries and NHS bank staff often rely on staff working zero-hours contracts.

Zero-hours contracts are legal in the UK as long as the employer continues to abide by statutory rights afforded to all employees. These include the national minimum wage, paid holiday, and the right to take rest breaks.

Compared to other countries in Europe, the UK is something of an anomaly. According to Full Fact “most EU countries outlaw these contracts, heavily restrict them, or don’t see them widely used”.

“The UK is one of around half a dozen European countries where zero-hours contracts are both legal and fairly common,” the fact checkers said in 2016, prompted by former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s claim that zero-hours contracts are not allowed in 11 EU countries. 

New Zealand was one of the first countries to ban zero-hours contracts in 2016, making it illegal to offer someone work without a minimum number of hours. Ireland banned zero-hours contracts in almost all circumstances in 2019. The legislation also gave workers the right to compensation from their employer if they turn up for a shift but are sent home without work.

What rights do you have on a zero-hours contract?

Do you get holiday pay on zero-hours contracts?

Yes. All workers are entitled to holiday pay that builds up the more they work. People working zero-hours contracts are entitled to the same annual leave as any other employee, however it is accrued in relation to the amount of time they work. 

A person who works full-time is legally entitled to 28 days (including bank holidays) of paid days off. Employees on casual contracts accrue annual leave from the first day of their employment, just like a normal full-time employee.

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According to HR company Moorepay, holiday is accrued at a rate of 12.07%per hour, meaning that someone on a casual contract working ten hours in a week would have accrued 1.2 hours holiday. After seven weeks, they would have accrued enough holiday pay for a full day of paid holiday.

Employers may not be aware of, or choose to ignore, their casual workers’ holiday entitlements, so although they shouldn’t have to, workers on zero-hours contracts may want to keep track of their hours and make sure they get the holiday pay they are entitled to.

Do you get rest breaks on zero-hours contracts? 

Yes. Under UK law, employees are entitled to one uninterrupted rest break for 20 minutes for every six hours they work. This is no different for workers and employees on zero-hours contracts.

Do you get sick pay on zero-hours contracts?  

Technically yes, but it’s severely limited.

All employees are entitled to £109.40 a week statutory sick pay (SSP) for up to 28 weeks. This works out to less than £22 per day. 

Staff are only entitled to SSP for the days they would have been scheduled to work and don’t get it for the first three days they’re off. They must also have earned an average of at least £123 per week (before tax) in the past eight weeks.

Many who work on zero-hours contracts only receive their shifts a week – or two – in advance, so with the first three days discarded, this adds up to four days of shifts on which to receive sick pay.

If an employee falls sick and can’t work on a Monday, and they have three shifts scheduled for the week, they will be entitled to statutory sick pay for the shifts they had been scheduled to work from Thursday onwards. If they were scheduled to work Thursday-Sunday, that works out to £87.52 for four missed days of work.

What about maternity and paternity leave?

Again, it’s complicated, but likely not.

The right to statutory maternity pay or sick pay still exists for those on zero-hours contracts, however the requirements can be hard to meet for someone not receiving a guaranteed income.

To receive statutory maternity or paternity pay, currently set at £172.48 a week, the employee must have been earning on average at least £123 per week, and have been employed continuously for at least 26 weeks by the 15th week before the baby is due.

If a member of staff doesn’t receive any shifts for a full calendar week – seven consecutive days from Sunday to the following Saturday – this usually counts as a break in employment. 

Therefore if an employee has one week break in their employment during a certain period of their pregnancy, they may no longer be entitled to maternity pay.

Can you work for more than one employer on zero-hours contracts?

Yes, and many workers do, as zero-hours contracts rarely guarantee enough hours to live on alone.

Employers, by law, can’t stop someone working for another employer by putting an ‘exclusivity clause’ in their contract – something that full-time salaried jobs are able to do. 

They are also not allowed to treat an employee unfairly if they do work for another employer, and could be taken to an employment tribunal if they do.

Can you refuse a zero-hours contract?

An employee can refuse to sign a contract that does not guarantee them a certain number of hours, however there is no way of forcing an employer to provide a better contract. 

People on zero-hours contracts are often faced with the fear that if they complain to their employer about anything from unsociable hours to bullying, their hours could be cut. One way to deal with bad treatment at work, particularly when working on insecure contracts, is to join a union, which will try to help you to get a better deal.

What are the disadvantages of a zero-hours contract?

Employers hold all the cards when it comes to zero-hours contracts, as they can choose how many, or how few hours an employee will be offered to work. 

Recent research conducted by the Living Wage Foundation (LWF) found that a third of workers are given less than a week’s notice of their shifts – a figure that rises to half for low-paid workers. Not all of these workers will be on zero-hours contracts, but it is a common reality for those who are. 

Unable to depend on regularly scheduled hours or a guaranteed income, employees can find it difficult to plan their finances or balance work with other commitments such as childcare. 

Nearly one in five of those who have experienced short shift notice periods or shift cancellations say they were forced to pay higher childcare costs as a result. The LWF say that a lack of notice for working hours levies an “insecurity premium”, amounting to around £30 a month for nearly half of all shift workers. 

The Foundation, which calculates the national living wage – a separate amount to the government set national minimum wage – is also calling on employers to commit to “Living Hours”. The agreement would see employers commit to providing workers with secure, guaranteed hours and notice of shift patterns – alongside paying the national living wage.

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“Ministers must finally deliver the employment bill they promised more than two years ago to ban zero-hours contracts. This includes bringing in decent notice of shifts and compensation for cancelled shifts,” said former general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, in response to the research. 

Certain financial services including credit cards, bank loans and mortgages require proof of a stable income, which many zero-hours contract workers cannot provide due to the lack of guaranteed hours in their contracts.

Employers can sometimes withhold hours from staff as a form of punishment if they are unavailable to work the hours their bosses want, or as a way of cajoling them into working.

Why do unions want zero-hours contracts to be banned? 

Trade unions including the TUC, Unison, Unite and GMB have called for years for an end to zero-hours contracts. 

The RMT’s Mick Lynch, called zero-hours contracts “a national disgrace”. The railways union leader called for them to be made illegal in response to claims that striking railway workers were preventing people working on zero-hours contracts to get to work, meaning they would miss out on a day’s pay.

“Those type of precarious contracts (mean) you’re at the beck and call of the employer, and there’s no balance in the workplace between what they can demand off you and what you can expect back for your labour.”

In a recent survey conducted by the TUC and the equality organisation Race on the Agenda (Rota), they were described as “the most egregious example of one-sided flexibility at work”, handing the employer total control over their workers’ hours.

The report also found that minority ethnic women are almost twice as likely to be on zero-hours contracts as white men.

Over half of working people in the UK want a clampdown on zero-hours contracts, according to a survey from the TUC and GQR Research. 

The survey also found that 20% of workers oppose banning zero-hours contracts. At the same time, 70% believed that workers should have the right to 28 days’ notice before shift patterns are allocated. 

Are there any advantages to zero-hours contracts?

Zero-hours contracts allow workers flexibility in how much time they want to commit to their work. For example students or parents may find them useful as they could pick up more hours during periods when they have more time available, and are not obligated to do a set amount at times when they are lacking in time.

Speaking during a visit to Deliveroo’s London headquarters in London, work and pensions secretary Mel Stride said he found himself “identifying” with Deliveroo rider Abdul Javaid, aged 51. 

Javaid, a grandfather based in southwest London, said: “It can help with fitness, it can help with flexibility, it can help with fitting into a part of their life where it serves a useful purpose, amongst other things, and not every kind of job offers that,” The Times reports.

What’s the gig economy got to do with zero-hours contracts?

Gig economy workers tend to be on zero-hours contracts or short-term, freelance contracts rather than permanent jobs with a set number of hours. They are otherwise known as independent contractors.

However, people working in the gig economy are often paid per gig (or job) that they complete, rather than a set hourly rate. Some enjoy the level of flexibility this provides, as it is up to the individual how many, or few, jobs they undertake.


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