Zero-hours contracts mean far worse than ‘no guaranteed hours’

(If you’re reading this and you’re on a ZHC and would be willing to contribute your story toward a project I’m planning on the impact of ZHCs, please let me know via the comments section of this post!)

I wrote last night about the information I’ve started to find out about ‘zero-hours contracts’ in the NHS. The issue of zero-hours contracts generally has started to receive some media coverage recently, but the scale of the problem in the UK is very hard to quantify, because commercial companies are not generally subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and do not have to declare the numbers they employ on these contracts.

Because the NHS is subject to the FOI Act, the scale and extent of the use of these contracts in the NHS is a useful barometer of the wider problem of these contracts in the UK. My article last night covered only one FOI response I’ve received so far from the initial 6 (now 7) FOI requests I sent to different NHS Trusts. That one Trust responded exceptionally quickly – the others still have almost a month to provide their own responses. The Trust in question, University Hospitals Bristol NHS Trusts, employs a staggering 1,281 people on these onerous contracts.

Last night’s article has been widely read. From some of the ensuing comments and discussions on Twitter, it’s clear that there’s some confusion in people’s minds between a zero-hours contract and a casual contract. This is not surprising – both types of contract have no guaranteed hours, so no security of income for those working under them; under both you can take holidays and sick leave, but you won’t get paid for them.

However, the two contracts are not the same. There are very crucial differences. Below is the description of a zero-hours contract from a site that specialises in these and other types of legal contract and document:

This Zero Hours Contract is designed to create an ‘on call’ arrangement between Employer and Employee. Zero hours contracts are used to cope with varying staff requirements, where the Employer is under no obligation to offer an Employee work but, when it does, the Employee is required to accept the offer.”

(emphases mine)

A different page on the same site clarifies the difference between casual contracts and ZHCs:

The basic difference between these two contracts of employment are that a Casual Worker Contract does not oblige the workers to accept the work offered to them, but a Zero Hours Contract will oblige workers to accept the assignment(s) offered to them

This is a massive difference. If you work under a casual contract and your employer offers you work that isn’t convenient, you’re perfectly free to say ‘No thanks’. This means you can use a casual contract as a 2nd job to top up your income from another job, whether full- or part-time. If offered work under the casual contract that clashes with your main work, you simply decline it.

Under a ZHC you have no such freedom. As the first quote states, the ZHC creates a continuous ‘on-call arrangement‘. If offered work, you have to take it. This means it’s almost impossible to take even a part-time job while you’re under a ZHC, because you’re required to be available to do any hours the employer wants at very short notice. Unless you’re extremely lucky and find completely casual hours to top up your income, from an employer who won’t mind if you have to turn down work or even suddenly leave work if your ZHC employer wants you, you’re completely at the mercy of the whims, wishes and needs of your ZHC employer. He gets you when he wants you – and if he doesn’t, you don’t earn. This makes you a kind of ‘bonded casual’ worker in a completely one-sided arrangement. You get all of the disadvantages of being self-employed, but none of the benefits such as being able to claim for travel and expenses.

The second key difference is that, because the zero-hours contract is a full-time arrangement (but to be on call, rather than working), ZHC workers will not be eligible for unemployment benefit even if they go a whole week or month with no work. In the last few months of ONS employment statistics, I’ve seen increases in the number of people on benefits even while the headline number of unemployed people has fallen. In part, this will be caused by people being forced to take low-wage jobs, who still need to claim some form of income support. However, it’s almost certain that this phenomenon is also directly related to increases in the numbers of people on ZHCs – who will have to claim income support whenever their hours don’t yield enough income to live on. But it’s a very complicated situation for anyone in it – trying to claim income-related benefit when in some weeks your income may be too high and in others low enough to qualify must be a bureaucratic nightmare!

So ZHCs are a blight on our society in a number of ways. Most importantly, they deprive workers of the security and dignity of a steady, reliable income while offering none of the upsides of casual or self-employment. Less but still very important, they represent an additional way in which taxpayers are subsidising the profits of business. Employers get all the benefits of an available, flexible workforce but get to avoid all the costs apart from the direct cost of hours worked – while the taxpayer has to make up the shortfall when hours worked are not enough to support workers and their families.

Zero-hours contracts are not a new phenomenon. But it seems clear that they are an increasing one. And they represent yet another way in which the government and its backers get to strip security away from working people so that they can be forced into accepting all kinds of onerous measures – while funds are funnelled ever faster from the public purse into private profits.

I call on every journalist, newspaper and news station to highlight this blight on our social structure – and on every politician to make eradicating these malignant contracts from the UK’s workplaces a priority issue.

And if you’re not a journalist, editor or politician, you can still take part and help to get rid of zero-hours contracts. Find your MP on http://www.theyworkforyou.com/ and write to her/him to tell them that you expect them to make this matter a priority until it’s resolved.

If enough of us bother, we can effect a change for the better.


  1. Hello there, First time i have ever read about ZHCs,and never really realised just how much they are being used in a variety of workplaces.I work on a ZHC and have done for the last five years.I work in the funeral business,my dutie’s are mainly coffin bearing,but i also opted for call out work,which require’s me to be available for the collection of deceased persons outside of office hours,i perform this duty with a colleague on rota basis. The main reason i do this type of work is because the pay is excellent.On the down side,if we have a quite month it can prove very difficult (this isn’t very often) I have never turned any work down even though under my ZHC I could have,the reason for this is my boss could easily find someone else to do it,
    and if he so desired, could replace me in an instant.I’m not saying he would,however i wouldn’t want to leave it to chance! How people on ZHC who are on minimum wage cope i don’t know? I think the law surrounding ZHCs needs changing,because of it’s precarious nature there should be a minimum ZHC wage of eight pounds fifty per hour.I also think after an employer has USED an employee continuosly for more than eighteen months to two years,he or she should be given the offer, of either a part time or full time contract.As things stand, it looks all one way traffic, in favour of the employer.I hope my imput has proved useful.
    Yours sincerely
    Mr. Derry Mahoney.

    1. Well said Derry. The minimum wage is insufficient due to the precarious nature of our employment. Such flexibility should command a premium and long term, lead to ‘proper’ employment. Good luck to you.

  2. Reblogged this on The SKWAWKBOX Blog and commented:

    Zero hours contracts are in the news at last. Almost a year ago I highlighted how these onerous contracts represent a form of bonded labour that effectively enslaves employees to the convenience of their employers, while guaranteeing them no secure income at all. It seems like an apposite time for a reblog on this important issue.

  3. I’ve been on a ZOC for 4 weeks driving for a local charity. It’s a bit hairy if you’re used to a regular income, but I’d been on JSA for a year. So far so good, the work averages 2-3 days/week as predicted.

    1. I’m glad it’s working for you mate – but the risk is always that they expect to have to cut it at some point, otherwise they’d give you a 2-3 day contract. They get to have you obliged to turn up when they want you, but without any commitment in return.

    2. I’m glad it’s working for you mate – but the risk is always that they expect to have to cut it at some point, otherwise they’d give you a 2-3 day contract. They get to have you obliged to turn up when they want you, but without any commitment in return.

      1. I agree entirely. I’m due at work tomorrow. I’ll get a call at about 5pm tonight that lets me know my start time and working hours tomorrow. Are you on a ZHC yourself ?

  4. I’ve been on a ZHC for a restaurant for a year on minimum wage. I’ve managed to just earn enough to pay my £300 rent and bills a month, however we’ve just been told that as it’s quiet we’ll only be getting around 10 hours max a week from now on. I’ve been applying for other jobs but until then I only have this. When we admitted we were frightened about not being able to pay our rent we were told “Well now you know what life is like guys!” I feel depressed and anxious most days and we feel worthless. I AM greatful to have a job and understand it could be worse but I know I could lose my job tomorrow with no legal standing where as I still have to give my employer a months notice if I intend to leave.

    1. What a perfect example of the inhumane, dehumanising effect of these despicable contracts – and a perfect representation of why the government wants to make us grateful to have a job, any job.

      I hope things get better for you soon!

      1. ZHC could possibly work out right, if this country were to adopt a Unconditional Basic Income, this has been piloted in a large village in Namibia, where each citizen received a basic liveable weekly income, which they could top-up through working if they so wish. It was a success! productivity went up, the economy flourished, child malnutrition dropped, children going to school grew, the crime rate dropped significantly and workplace thefts dropped. Switzerland are planning a referendum concerning UBI and other European countries are also looking into it, India already has it, so do some middle eastern countries, Why can’t we, it could be paid for by getting rid of all the useless private companies that are ruining British peoples lives, this might be a chance to make Britain great again!!

    2. Thought I’d leave an update. On 21st December we were told that after the 27th we would no longer be given any hours. A few of the salaried members of staff were either offered redundancy or reshuffling. Since then myself and 5 other ZHC staff have left as it became apparent after a month there would be no more shifts permanently (Despite being told there would be shifts at “some point”).

    3. @Louise: You should be able to claim some Housing Benefit for months/weeks when your income is below a certain amount, depending on area. Though that involves sending payslips off to the council everytime your income changes, and it can take ages to get any money out of them.

  5. Hi Steve, I recently moved from a Relief (casual) to zero-hour contract along with every other Relief staff member of my national social care employer. Here is a slightly redacted copy of my submission to the ‘consultation’. This move followed the removal of TUPE rights for all contracted staff and the loss of sick pay for the first three days of absence for contracted employees.


    I have read the pack and the intranet guidance on the relief proposals and, frankly, am appalled. I will be in [the office] on Tuesday but here are a few thoughts before I see you.

    The zero-hours contract we are being asked to sign is horrid! At the moment, relief work is a two-way understanding: [The company] don’t have to offer work and we don’t have to accept it.

    Now the balance of power is all one way. We can’t expect to be offered any work but are expected to be available at all the times we state on the form. We can be pulled part-way through a shift and lose the rest of the hours we were booked to work. We will never be classed as having any service to the company – ten years of regular work would count for nothing as far as length of service goes. We have no employment rights. Finally, the tone of the covering letter makes no pretence that this is a consultation in anything but name – this is clearly going to happen no matter what.

    I have 4.5 years service and am writing this after giving advice to a prospective assistant manager, writing up two Mental Capacity Assessments and completing a cost breakdown and support outline for a meeting I’m having with a Social Worker tomorrow. I am a Senior Support Worker until I step down under the restructure, and make myself available at all hours to help out Support Workers and managers by telephone; kind of an unofficial on-call for the day-to-day stuff. Basically I believe I am an important part of the service, not the peripheral throwaway interchangeable body assumed by the new contract. I am not alone in this: many relief staff pull in 40-50 hour weeks in tough times and basically keep the services going; it is wrong to demean their contribution in this way. By the way, I remain on relief for the benefit of the company: as a single Dad who has to be home every night for my two-year old I thought it unfair to the rest of the team to apply for a contract when my hours and availability are restricted.

    We have current adverts out for Relief Support Workers for £6.89 per hour under the old contracts, and recent recruits at that wage will not receive a consultation pack [only staff with a minimum length of service and hours worked were sent a pack]. How would you feel if you received a 4% pay cut and a more restrictive contract mere weeks after starting your own job, or while still waiting for your start date? Is it even legal? We rely on regular relief staff as cover and our fallback is an agency where we offer £6.50-£8.29 per hour plus agency fees for. Scrimping on the basic terms and conditions for in-house staff is a false economy in my opinion.

    My suggestions in all this?
    Increase the pay offer to £6.89 in line with contract support workers, and do the same across the country to show that relief workers are valuable.
    Count time working regularly on relief towards length of service, including weeks when nothing can be offered.
    Pay a full shift if cancelled within 24 hours of when it is due to start.
    Set up a calendar system where we can block times we are unavailable on a real-time basis so managers can see when we have commitments elsewhere such as family or other jobs, rather than the unbalanced proposal where we have to offer everything and you nothing.
    Above all, don’t treat us like second-class citizens if you expect any kind of respect for the company. To the people I support and my colleagues; always. But not to [the company].
    A final thought: this offer fits in beautifully with the ex-gratia payment made a while back to show how much [the company] valued its staff. Relief workers got a big fat nothing. Now you’re doing it again.



  6. I disagree that there is a “massive difference” between the “bonded” labour of ZHCs and the more flexible “take it or leave it” Casual contract. If a boss calls you and says “we need you to come in tomorrow” and you don’t they are very likely to decide not to call you next time. But it’s not really about the effects on individuals – it’s about the labour market as a whole. Why pay your loyal full time employees overtime when you can call in a ZHC or casual worker to split the difference. And what of the people who are hired automatically on a ZHC or casual contract who really just want a 35/40 hr week? They may find they get 40 hours a week for a few months and then suddeny find they get little or no work for ages.
    That is the real scandal!

  7. Zero hour’s contracts are not all bad ….many businesses we deal with use zero hour’s contracts to create an ‘on call’ arrangement allowing them to retain workers. Some companies need to fill temporary positions as they arise.

    1. Then they should use a casual contract. a zero-hours contract puts the employee completely at the disposal of the employer and obliges him/her to be available whenever required, while the employer is not obliged to provide any work. The two contracts are not the same thing.

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