2 May 2014: As reported widely in the press this week, Ed Milliband and the Labour party plan to reform the law on zero hour contracts, under which employers are not obliged to offer a minimum number of working hours, and which are common in the catering and security industries. Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable has already ruled out a complete ban on zero hours contracts and Ed Milliband proposes that:
- Workers will be able to demand a fixed-hours contract when they’ve worked regular hours over six months for the same employer;
- That they receive a fixed-hours contract automatically when they’ve worked regular hours for more than one year – unless they chose to opt out;
- Protection from employers forcing them to be available all hours and insisting they can’t work for others or cancelling shifts at short notice – for no money.
However employers may dismiss workers on zero hours contracts before 6 months is up, or may artificially vary hours to avoid a regular pattern being implied. Some workers may be forced to agree to the opt out.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published an estimate of the number of ‘zero-hours contracts’ in the UK, which suggested that there are 1.4 million people, or one in three workers are on them. Other analysis suggests that 57% of workers on zero-hours contracts outside London earned less than the living wage, while more than three-quarters of those working in the capital were paid below the benchmark rate. ( See also the Living Wage Commission. )
In the meantime, employers should still be careful. In Borrer v Cardinal Security Ltd last year it was held that zero hours contracts must be explicitly stated to be enforceable. Mr Borrer worked a regular 48 hour week. When the company put him on fewer hours, he complained that he was entitled to 48 hpw and claimed constructive dismissal. The company argued he was only on a zero hours contract. The EAT asked “what was the true agreement between the parties”. On the facts they concluded that he was entitled to 48 hpw work.
Reculver Solicitors is a firm of specialist employment lawyers based in Holborn, Central London.