Zero hour contracts: Fact & fiction

An increasingly common contract for students and job-seeking graduates, the zero hour contract may seem stacked in favour of the employer, but you have more rights than you may think and it’s important that you’re aware of them. 

zero hour

In August this year, the Irish Independent published the experiences of two Irish college graduates working in a global fast food outlet, on what is known as a ‘zero hour’ contract. Both employees said that this method of working, which requires employees to be available for work but are not given guaranteed hours of work, means that the so-called flexibility works vastly in the favour of the employer, with cutbacks in hours allegedly used as a form of punishment. While the current economic climate means that employers often have to change the practicalities of how they work, the increasing prevalence of systems like this mean that a worker, who may need to have employment so they can pay their living expenses while studying, is at the mercy of a contract which guarantees no hours, has no sick pay and limited holiday pay. In the UK it is estimated that as many as one million employees are working on zero hour contracts, many of them college graduates, or students.

But, those subject to zero hour contracts in Ireland have far more backup legally when it comes to what the employer is liable for, should the company be unable to provide the contracted hours. In the UK an employer can ask an employee to make themselves available for work for a determined number of hours but there is no issue from the employer’s point of view if they cannot then provide that number of hours. It is somewhat different in Ireland. The principle remains the same; that an employer can ask the employee to be available for a set number of hours, but if the employer cannot provide those hours, they are required to pay the employee at least 25 per cent of the contracted hours, or else for 15 hours, whichever is the lesser amount.

This requirement is legislated for in Section 18 of the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997.

It’s very important you know what contact you’re working under. The above applies to the zero hours contract, but not to another common practice; the Casual Hours contract. Under this arrangement, hours vary each week according to the needs of the particular business but when no work is available, the employee is effectively laid off on a temporary basis.

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