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Be fair with zero-hours staff

26 July 2013
Be fair with zero-hours staff

The use of zero-hours contracts could expose employers to discrimination clains, says Paula Whelan, employment law at Shakespeares

The growing use of zero-hours contracts in the restaurant and leisure sector is cause for concern for both employers and employees, particularly as the summer season gets into full swing. The use of such contracts needs urgent clarification.

As the busy summer season calls for more staff to manage increased outdoor capacity, pubs and restaurant businesses are adopting zero-hours employment contracts to ensure they have sufficient staff to meet demand. While beneficial for employers, these flexible working arrangements also appeal to young workers, students and older workers looking to supplement their incomes.

However, concerns raised recently about how such contracts are used have led to Business Secretary Vince Cable announcing plans to review them.

There is often ambiguity around what these types of contracts actually mean, and Cable is aiming to clarify matters.

Concerns about zero-hours contracts stem from having workers on stand-by to cover busy trading periods, which can make the system susceptible to abuse. For example, if the same few employees are used each time to cover the additional shifts, the system is no longer fair to everyone, and this could leave employers exposed to the risk of a discrimination claim.

To minimise this risk, it may be wise for employers to remove from their books workers who have refused shifts on more than three occasions and to notify them in advance that this will determine whether they get future work. They should also aim to manage staffing arrangements closely to ensure shifts are rotated appropriately.

In today's economic climate it isn't viable for employers to employ all staff on permanent contracts with set hours, and as long as the employer has well-managed systems in place to support zero-hours contracts, there is no reason why they can't work for everyone.

Employers also need to be more proactive about communicating terms and conditions at the outset to ensure employees understand their rights and what is expected of them.

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