By Brian Lenehan, HR Consultant

With the resumption of the Executive and the calling of a UK general election, zero-hour contracts have become a topic of conversation in the world of employment rights once again. With students now beginning their summer breaks from university and entering the world of work, typically in zero-hour friendly sectors such as hospitality and tourism, the importance of employers understanding their obligations and employees understanding their rights is of paramount importance.

A new survey published by Acas found that over three in five workers, 61%, are unaware of the rights of workers on zero-hour contracts. As the Labour Party reportedly rolls back on its pledge to ban these types of contracts and as Minister for the Economy Conor Murphy prepares to implement reform in this area upon his return to office, knowledge of obligations and rights has never been more necessary.

As the name implies, employers who employ staff on zero-hour contracts are not obliged to give any minimum working hours. They are, however, obliged to grant employees statutory employment rights, with no exceptions, and to uphold protected employment rights. The National Minimum Wage must be paid no matters how many hours of work are offered or worked, and employees must be informed as to their rights regarding arrangements such as sick pay, holiday entitlement, and redundancy pay. Crucially, employees must be made aware of how their contract will be ended when the time comes.

Workers who take up work on a zero-hour contract must also understand that there is no guarantee of work when agreeing to such an arrangement. However, this does not mean that their rights as employees are suspended, and they should be aware that their rights around wages and holiday/sick pay remain along with their entitlement to rest breaks and protection from discrimination.

In our cities and our coastal tourism hotspots – be it Portstewart, Ballycastle, or Newcastle – hundreds of students will enter into such arrangements in pubs, restaurants, cafés, and other businesses who enjoy their busiest periods throughout the summer holidays. When executed properly, zero-hours contracts can be a reciprocal beneficial arrangement whereby a business in need of seasonal staff but still exposed to unforeseen disruptions such as adverse weather can cover its staffing needs, while students in need of summer work before returning to university can avail of a short-term employment opportunity.

Reform is coming down the tracks in this area; Labour have abandoned the idea of fully banning the contracts in all cases, but they will still seek reform, and Conor Murphy’s ‘good jobs’ agenda will do similar in Northern Ireland. For employers and employees in the meantime, the knowledge of rights and obligations is the greatest defence against any possible problems.

This article first appeared in the Irish News on 11th June 2024. To discuss any aspect, please get in touch with Brian Lenehan  E: T: 028 9032 3466.