Zero-hours contracts are a form of flexible working that specify no minimum number of working hours a week. While the employee may sign an agreement to be available for work as and when required, the employer is not necessarily obliged to give the worker any work and the employee is not obliged to accept the work offered. The employee is expected to be on call and receives compensation only for hours worked.
Eurofound research into new forms of work, published in 2015, found that the use of this kind of contract has increased over the past 10 years in Member States such as Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. These types of contracts are commonly used in retail, fast food restaurants and cinemas, and other sectors that experience fluctuations in demand, such as care work or tourism. Low-skilled workers in low-paid jobs are the most likely to be offered zero-hours contracts.
There is no regulation of zero-hours contracts at European level, and their implementation varies between Member States. In Ireland, there is some legal protection for employees on zero-hours contracts while in Italy the use of on-call contracts is restricted by law. In the Netherlands, during the first six months of a work relationship the employer has to pay only for the hours worked. However, after this period, the employer has to pay for the average hours worked in the previous three months for as long as the contract is active, even if the worker is never called in. Collective sectoral agreements can extend this six-month period indefinitely and add other elements.
In the UK, a zero-hours contract is not a legal term and has no specific legal status. Thus its conditions vary from employer to employer. Zero-hours contracts are a particular focus of debate in the UK, where there have been calls from trade unions and employee representative bodies for more regulation. The discussions focus on issues such as:
- the acceptability of exclusivity clauses;
- workers’ access to unemployment benefits;
- whether unemployed people should be obliged to accept the offer of a zero-hours contract;
- whether to compensate workers for their additional flexibility;
- payment for travel time and expenses for short assignments (or for turning up to work as requested, and the shift then being cancelled).
In 2014, the UK government completed consultations on the use of zero-hours contracts and on 26 May 2015 new regulations about zero-hours contracts were brought in. The law prevents employers from enforcing 'exclusivity clauses' – whereby an employer can stop workers from working for other employers – in a zero-hours contract.
Eurofound has published case studies of casual work, including zero-hours contracts, as part of its 2015 research on new forms of employment.