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zero hours contract also zero hour contract

noun [countable] British

an employment agreement in which a person only works when the employer needs them and so has no regular amount of work or working hours

'"Millions of people have taken shorter hours, temp jobs and zero hours contracts in order to stay afloat during the recession and stagnation," said TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady …'

International Business Times 12th August 2013

'One-in-20 workers on Tower Hamlets' payroll is on a zero hour contract with no guaranteed work, sick pay or even travel allowance between assignments.'

East London Advertiser 12th August 2013

It seems like a contradiction in terms – on the one hand being 'employed' by someone, but at the same time having no guarantee of actual working hours or pay. This may seem rather unfair, but is in fact an accurate description of the predicament of a significant number of UK workers who are employed on what's now known as a zero hours contract.

the contracts have been criticized for not offering a basic level of financial security, many workers not being given enough hours and not having the same employment rights as those on traditional contracts

The concept of a zero hours contract (also sometimes zero hour contract) is effectively a situation which allows employers to hire staff but give them no guarantee of work. Such contracts mean that employees only work as and when required, so that they are effectively 'on call' to work at short notice, and only receive pay for the hours they work. Some zero hours contracts make it compulsory for workers to accept the working hours they're offered, and others allow the employee to decide, but most contracts of this type don't offer sick or holiday pay, and deny rights such as redundancy payments and pensions.

Predictably, the use of such contracts is controversial, not least because they give no guarantee of work, yet often deny the opportunity to seek employment elsewhere – some zero hours contracts oblige workers to seek permission before they can take on other jobs. The contracts have been criticized for not offering a basic level of financial security, many workers not being given enough hours and not having the same employment rights as those on traditional contracts. With no guaranteed income, employees on zero hours contracts sometimes find it difficult to get mortgages and other forms of credit.

Employers meanwhile are often accused of using the contracts as a way of avoiding basic responsibilities to employees, or as a management tool which enables them to offer more hours to those employees considered to be productive, or withdraw hours from those deemed to be less valuable.

The term zero hours contracts hit the UK headlines in August 2013, when a survey of employers undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development revealed that more than a million UK workers have such an employment agreement, a much larger figure than had previously been officially acknowledged. Use of zero hours contracts seems to be most prevalent in the voluntary and public sectors, but occurs across the spectrum, with employers ranging from city councils through to restaurants, cinema chains, retail outlets and even Buckingham Palace. The concept attracted further controversy when it was pointed out that its prevalence calls into question the UK government's employment figures, where workers on zero hours contracts would count as employed, but are in fact receiving insufficient hours and pay. Such a debate has brought the expression abruptly into the spotlight, and the modifying phrase zero hour(s) is now beginning to take on a life of its own, occurring in a range of related expressions such as zero hours worker/pay deal, etc.

Background – zero hours contract

Zero hour(s) contract is of course a compositional expression based on phrases such as 35/37.5/40, etc hour contract, which refer to the number of agreed hours in a working week.

The independent phrase zero hour has another established use in English, referring to the time at which something important (e.g. a military attack) has been planned to start.

There's a relatively small number of words in English that begin with the letter 'z', of which zero is among the most common. Based on the same word in Italian and dating back to the 1600, zero has popped up in a number of fixed expressions over the years, including absolute zero (the lowest temperature scientists believe is possible), zero tolerance (a policy of being strict about punishing people for minor offences) and ground zero (the point on the earth's surface directly above or below a nuclear explosion).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 20th August 2013.

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