Zero-hours contracts have become an increasingly political hot potato.
Despite pressure from trade unions and the Labour Party, according to the Office for National Statistics their use apparently grew by 100,000 last year.
There is no legal prohibition on zero-hours contracts. For many employers, particularly in the retail sector, they provide a flexible way of dealing with seasonal work flows. There is however some controversy surrounding their use due to the potential impact that the lack of certainty of hours and pay has on workers.
In response to the heightened publicity around zero-hours contracts, the government is introducing a limited change in the form of a ban on exclusivity clauses (a clause that restricts the worker from working for other organisations). It is also proposed to extend the ban on exclusivity clauses to low income workers, for example, contracts that guarantee less than a set amount of hours each week.
The government also intends to review existing guidance and improve information on the use of zero-hours contracts once the legislation has been finalised. In the meantime, the government has called on business representatives and unions to develop industry-led, industry-owned, sector-specific codes of practice on the fair use of such contracts.
In addition to a ban on exclusivity clauses, in Northern Ireland they intend to allow zero-hours workers to request a fixed working pattern if that is what they have actually been working over a period of time. This will be supported by an obligation on employers to review regular working patterns with a view to converting zero-hours contracts to fixed-hour contracts.
It’s expected that the changes will come into force later this year but there could be further developments depending on the outcome of the election. For example Labour has stated that they would commit to ban on employers requiring zero-hours workers to be available on the off-chance that they’ll be needed. The impact of such changes could be much more dramatic than the current reforms, but only the outcome in May will determine this.