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The truth about zero-hours contracts

When recent research revealed that there could be more than a million UK workers on zero-hours contracts, four times more than official figures, media interest was understandably piqued.

Most journalists grasped the concept that zero hours contracts, when operated equitably, made for very flexible working arrangements for employers and workers alike. But some misunderstood key aspects around the legislation.

Much of the misinformation emerging in the media has been about zero-hours entitlements, particularly in relation to maternity and holiday pay, and travel expenses.

Generally, employers don't have to offer work to people on zero-hours contracts, and similarly, neither do zero-hours workers have to accept the work offered to them. But the arrangement doesn't alter the basic truth that zero-hours staff are, in many circumstances, entitled to the same rights, protections and benefits as any other worker.

In the UK, taking a job with an employer can give someone either a 'worker' status or an 'employee' status depending on the relationship involved. In most cases zero-hours contracts give worker status. Workers have key rights, such as statutory annual leave entitlement and protection from discrimination. However, it takes employee status to get some other rights, including statutory sick pay and the right to request flexible working.

The difference is that zero-hours contracts may be more likely to include a break in the contract. This has to be for a full week when there is no work done from a Sunday to the following Saturday. This means that rights that depend on an 'accrual system', such as maternity pay, might take longer to be reached - or not be reached - under certain zero-hours arrangements.

The issue of travelling costs is particularly important for home carers, many of whom are on zero-hours contracts, and whose work often involves travelling between different patients. In such circumstances, employers need to remember that their zero-hours workers are covered by Working Time Regulations (WTR) and National Minimum Wage (NMW) provisions.

The WTR counts travel that is 'in the course of employment' as working time, which generally includes travel between workplaces (for the same employer). What it doesn't include is a worker's normal commute to and from their home to their regular place of work.

All workers are entitled to the NMW. If work-related travel time is not taken into account when assessing whether a worker is receiving the minimum wage, and pay over an extended period falls below the NMW rate, recent guidance suggests that regulations may be breached.

Acas has released guidance on Zero hours contracts to help employers understand their obligations, and workers their rights and entitlements. Acas has also published the Advisory booklet - Flexible working and work-life balance and offers training for employers in drawing up Contracts and terms and conditions.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects page for more information.

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