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Zero hours contracts

Zero hours – zero rights?

A zero hours contract (ZHC) is one with no minimum set hours. The employer can call the worker in when needed. The worker has no guarantee of work or pay in any particular week. Prospect is strongly opposed to the use of ZHCs and the insecurity and unfairness that is endemic in their use.

members' guide: atypical workersThere are many Prospect members working on contracts with no minimum or guaranteed hours. These are often described as freelance, consultants, or sessional workers. The term ‘zero hours’ may not be used so frequently as in many other sectors, but the impact is just the same.

In theory there is no obligation on a ZHC worker to accept offers to work, but in reality if they do not they are unlikely to be called in again. The ‘flexibility’ is only one way. Employers contend an absence of an obligation to offer or undertake the work means the worker has no legal rights. This makes ZHCs very attractive to the employer.

But for workers on a ZHC there is:

  • serious insecurity
  • extreme variation in pay
  • a reduced means of challenging unfairness.

In many cases ZHC workers do have statutory rights. ‘Zero hours’ has no specific legal meaning. An Employment Tribunal has to determine the legal status of the contract and apply a range of established factors, such as the means of payment, degree of supervision, obligation to do and provide work, and whether a substitute could be sent along.

Applying these tests, tribunals have often determined that the reality of the situation is that there is an obligation on the worker and they are in fact employees or workers with legal rights at work.

Prospect has challenged this in many cases and has secured acceptance that the workers are in fact employees with full rights, despite varying hours of work.

Resources and news

Members' guide: 27 atypical workers   info
A guide for members working on atypical contracts, including freelancers, consultants or members working on variable or ‘zero hours’ contracts. This guide gives information on the legal tests used to determine the level of employment rights and also considers key issues for atypical workers in respect of their rights to a safe working environment, ensuring equality and developing careers.
 16 January 2013 

Employment law update: 0409 - Zero Hours Contracts: Guidance to Employers   info
The Department for Business Innovation and Skills [BIS] has published guidance to employers on the use of zero hours contracts and the ban on exclusivity clauses.
 20 November 2015 

Submission: Zero Hours Contracts - Banning Exclusivity Clauses: Tacking Avoidance   info
Prospect's response to the BIS consultation on: Zero Hours Contracts - Banning Exclusivity Clauses: Tacking Avoidance
 21 November 2014 

Employment law briefing: 042 - Zero Hours Contracts   info
Briefing from Prospect Legal on Zero Hours Contracts, including what they are, how we are challenging them, and reporting a successful legal case.
 21 May 2014 


A proposed government ban on exclusivity clauses in zero hours contracts will fail to deal with the widespread abuse of these and similar contracts.

The spectre and inequity of zero hours contracts was the subject of a passionate discussion at the Prospect conference on Wednesday afternoon, where delegates debated whether they should be banned outright or not.

A CIPD survey suggests that over a million UK workers may be on zero hours contracts - many more than previously thought. Employers use zero hours contracts to give themselves maximum flexibility, and the worker minimum rights.