What Exactly Is A Zero-Hour Contract?

As it is a very loose classification of an employment contract, it can be hard to fully understand. Here are a few things to note.

Employment contracts come in all shapes and sizes. From the moment we leave school and take our first steps into the world of employment we find ourselves faced with the prospect of full-time or part-time employment. Even those of us who decide to stay in education usually accept temporary vacancies or shift work in order to provide for ourselves.

So where do zero-hour contracts fit into this, and why have they suddenly been brought to attention?


There is no legal definition for zero-hours contracts and even common-usage has not clarified precisely what they are. It is a legitimate form of employment contract drawn up between employer and individual, providing both parties freely agree to it.

A zero-hour contract is a term of employment in which a hirer is not contractually obliged to provide any work each week. Workers may see varying shifts or working times each week, as determined by their employer. One week, a zero-hours worker might be asked to work twenty hours, the next none, depending on the requirements of their employer.

The employee agrees to be available for work as and when required, so that no particular number of hours or times of work are specified. The employee is expected to be on call and receives compensation only for hours worked.


The lack of legislature surrounding zero-hour contracts, coupled with the inconstant working hours that define them, makes them susceptible to abuse by unscrupulous business owners. And they can provide a basic lack of job security.

There may be no notice period if the employer wants to end the contract, and unless a worker has a consistent relationship with their employer, the uncertainty about how much will be earned might generate a lot of stress.

This is not to say that zero-hour contracts are bad, or that the companies using them are suspect. Over half a million workers are using almost two million zero-hour contracts in the UK as a means of successfully balancing work and other life commitments.

The UK press and political parties are currently highlighting zero-hour contracts as open to abuse. It’s a hot issue that the UK political parties are now using as a flagpole to parade their own causes in the run-up to the May general election.


Zero-hour contracts have existed in one name or another many years, but it is only recently that they have been publicly targeted as an area that needs looking at. The news that popular high-street chain Sports Direct employs close to 90% of its workforce on this type of contract mirrors wider use of this type of contract in retail, hospitality and other industries that typically require a flexible workforce.

Legislation is currently being discussed in parliament to ban exclusivity in zero-hour contracts. That is the practice of only being allowed to work for one employer.


All the major parties have promised action in order to settle the zero-hour contracts debate. Some intend to abolish zero-hours contracts entirely, while others are focussing more on fixing them, or using them as a gateway to a more secure future employment status.

Labour for example, are proposing ‘a package of protections including regular contracts for those working regular hours, protection for refusal of extra hours and compensation for last-minute shift cancellation’. David Cameron himself said on live TV that he couldn’t live on a zero-hour contract.

While these proposed ‘minimum-hour’ contracts seem to resolve some of the job security issues surrounding zero-hour contracts, they are not, themselves, without issues. It is unclear what exactly Labour means by a ‘regular contract’. This ambiguity raises a number of unanswered questions and difficulties. For example, how much pay and how many hours will an employer be required to promise? How many people would it impact? It is believed that many in local councils and healthcare providers use exactly this type of contract.

Colin Leckey, a partner in the employment team at law firm Lewis Silkin, comments that ‘…promising a single hour of work and a single hour of pay as a way of getting round zero hours legislation would be abusive, but where is the line drawn, and by who?’

What is clear is that millions of UK workers depend on zero-hour contracts in order to earn a living. Abolishing zero-hour contracts overnight, or transforming them into minimum-hour contracts, will not come quickly because of the complexity of the issues, and the number of people affected. Perhaps more effective, and certainly quicker than any change in the law, a simple, transparent technology solution could give zero-hour workers a greatly improved position with their employers.


WorkGaps is an innovative new platform designed to do just that. Workers can quickly create a free profile and get on with the rest of their day while WorkGaps automatically matches them to suitable job postings. WorkGaps is specially designed with part-time, temporary and zero-hour contracts in mind, pairing you with the jobs that you need most. And you don’t even have to keep checking back, or refreshing; the platform notifies you when a match is found.

Once a profile has been created, it effectively becomes a CV in the pocket. It can be updated quickly and easily, it can store references from previous employers, and importantly it has calendar and messaging features to improve communication and simplify the working relationship.

As hirers can use WorkGaps to manage their teams of workers, in addition to being able to post jobs,the days of zero-hour workers worrying whether they have any work today are vanishing; hirers can communicate quickly and easily with their workforce via WorkGaps itself, informing them of jobs in advance, clearly establishing times and locations, and searching for replacement staff should a worker fall ill.

Zero-hour contracts are the topic of the moment, sensationalised by emotive media reporting and the impending election, but underneath the controversy sits an unpolished gem of employment potential.

The WorkGaps platform polishes this gem, combining technology and people to turn zero-hour contracts into a brighter, more manageable employment option for the many people now employed in this way

To express your interest in this recruitment revolution and find out more about how WorkGaps can help you, register here.

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