Why weren't Zero Hours contracts outlawed twenty years ago?

In the industrial era it was the dockers, the last outlier against industrial working time who had both non-standard contracts and unpredictable working time. Now such extreme flexibility is back, thanks to the use and spread of zero-hour contract type arrangements  (1) . A zero-hours contract is an agreement between two parties that one may be asked to perform work for the other, but there is no set minimum number of hours (2).

In the UK, the Office of National Statistics estimated that 1.4 million workers are on zero hour contracts in a range of sectors, including, among others, Tourism, Catering and Food (371,000), Admin and Support Services (357,000), Health and Social Work (191,000) (3).  What is interesting about these statistics is that both the high numbers employed on these contracts and the wide range of sectors that are adopting them.

For the origins of Zero Hours in Ireland, we have to go back to Dunnes Stores, and strike of Dunnes Stores workers in 1995. The issue at the heart of this strike was the issue of zero hours and recompense (either in terms of extra payment or leave) for Sunday working. Following threes weeks of pickets the Labour Court recommended the elimination of Zero Hour contracts, saying that part time workers should be guaranteed a minimum of 15 hours a week, with a minimum of 3 hours a day and the abolition of split shifts. Rosters should be published one week in advance.

As is the case today, the Labour Party and Fine Gael were in power. The EU required all governments to introduce new legislation which put a 48 limit on working hours. There were calls to the opportunity afforded by this change in the law to outlaw for once and for all Zero Hour contracts.

David Begg, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, argued against their use saying “The problem is that employees do not have zero hour mortgages, cars or children.” (4)

Pat Rabbit, then Junior Minister for Commerce and Technology, asserted

“I am not prepared to see atypical workers be they part time, work sharing or whatever - marginalised or discriminated against. Practices such as zero hour contracts, unnecessary casualisation and so on are unwelcome blots on the labour market landscape."(5)

The Irish Independent reported that the upcoming bill included a ban on zero hour contracts (6).

However, soon there were signs that this commitment was wavering. The General Secretary of Mandate Mr Owen Nulty, described the Act as a ‘cop out’ and criticized the addition of a provision stating that employers will be obliged to give staff information on the hours they should work "where it is reasonably possible to[1] do so".

By the time the bill was passed in September 1997 promises to eliminate, ban and outlaw had become instead an inclusion of  “greater protection for those on "zero hour" contracts"(8).

Instead of banning zero hours the Act now offers some compensation for those who are expected to be available for work, but do not get work.

The current Act requires that an employee under a zero-hours contract who works less than 25% of their hours in any week should be compensated (9). The level of compensation depends on whether the employee got any work or none at all.

   •    If the employee got no work, then the compensation should be either for 25% of the possible available hours or for 15 hours, whichever is less.

   •    If the employee got some work, they should be compensated to bring them up to 25% of the possible available hours.

The result of this modification is that contracts are now being issued which are explicitly designed to work around the limited restrictions in the act. This is done in two main ways.

Firstly, contracts are given with very short hour weeks, such as

‘You are required to be available to work an 8 hour week, including Sundays and Public Holidays at the Company's discretion. Rosters shall be established as appropriate'

Zero-hour contracts typically understate the actual hours that will be worked, which means (in the example above) that a worker  is only entitled to compensation for two hours worked) - even if they generally work much longer hours.

Secondly, the short-hours contract often includes a clause that says that where additional hours are available but the employee is not ‘required’ to work the additional hours nor are they required to be available to work these hours,

‘You have the right to refuse or accept these hours. You are not expected to be on call for work and will not be paid an allowance for same. The refusal of hours on your behalf will have no negative consequence on hours being offered to you in the future.’

The Company is under no obligation to provide work to you at any time and you are under no obligation to accept any work offered by the Company at any time.’

Of course the difficulty with this, is that the zero hours worker is very vulnerable. If they do say no, they fear that they will not be allocated hours in the future.

Finally, the Organisation of Working Time Act is a very soft piece of legalisation, replete with allowable exceptions. For example, the legalisation excludes those to do work of a casual nature’, BUT does not provide a definition of ‘casual’ worker.

As a result, Zero Hour Contracts are everywhere. Both RTE and the Irish Times carry reports on their negative use, while using Zero Hour labour. The HSE was forced in 2013 to stop their use for home helps in residential home - yet it still outsources some of that care work to private workers who use Zero Hours contracts (10). Trinity College Dublin has been criticised for employing tutors on them (11). Over 6,6000 pilots across Europe are on Zero Hours contracts (12)

And, of course, the failure to outlaw these contracts has forced Dunnes Stores workers to again, twenty years later, go on strike for regular and predictable working hours.


(1) Rubery, J. et al. (2005) Working time, industrial relations and the employment relationship. Time & Society, 14, 89; Evans, J., Lippoldt, D. & Marianna, P. (2001) Trends in working hours in OECD countries. OECD Labour Market and Social Policy Occasional Papers No.45,

(2) CIPD. (2013) Zero Hours Contracts Myth and Reality. Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, London.

(3) Lynch, Esther (2014) Regulating for Decent Work Combating Unfair Terms in (Zero-Hour) Employment Contracts. PILA Bulletin, 1-12.

(4) Union leader dismisses provision in working time Bill as a cop out: [CITY EDITION] Irish Times [Dublin] 08 Apr 1996: 9.

(5) Employees to get extra day's leave: [CITY EDITION] Yeates, Padraig. Irish Times [Dublin] 25 Sep 1997: 2.

(6) Irish Independent, Friday, November 15, 1996; Page: 12

(7) Irish Independant, ‘Long Serving Staff Had Hours Reduced’ Monday, April 08, 1996; Page: 36

(8) Irish Independant, ‘Workers to get one more days rest under the law’ Thursday, September 25, 1997; Page: 3

(9) Lynch, Esther (2014) Regulating for Decent Work Combating Unfair Terms in (Zero-Hour) Employment Contracts. PILA Bulletin, 1-12

(10) O’Regan, E. (2013), ‘Home helps win an end to zero-hour HSE contracts’, Irish Independent, 19 September.

(11) Courney, D (2014) Provost denies knowledge of zero-hour contracts, Trinity News, http://trinitynews.ie/provost-denies-knowledge-of-zero-hour-contracts/

(12) RTE News, Rise in self employment and zero-hour contracts among pilots, Friday 13 February 2015 20.33, http://www.rte.ie/news/2015/0213/680089-pilots-study/