There has much attention on zero hours work in Ireland in recent years. Former Labour Party Minister of State for Business and Employment Ged Nash commissioned a report to investigate the practice of zero hours contracts and low hours work in 2015. The subsequent University of Limerick report found that zero hours work takes two contractual forms. The first are zero hours contracts where someone has no guaranteed hours of work and they are contractually required to be available to an employer. The second are ‘if and when’ contracts, where someone has no guaranteed hours of work and they are not contractually required to be available to an employer. Campaigns by unions pressuring the government to regulate zero hours contracts led to the introduction of the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions Act) 2018.
What exactly does "zero-hour" mean?
The Act sets regulations on the information an employer must provide an employee, the circumstances in which they can use zero hours contracts and also aims to provide more certainty to employees whose normal working hours are greater than their contractual hours. The topic of non-guaranteed hours of work and working time uncertainty are topical issues to varying degrees in other countries and a new book compares practices and policy responses in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA and the UK. Terminology differs across countries. In Ireland, New Zealand and the UK, zero hours contracts are recognised terms used in media and public debate while casual work is more prominent in Australia and Canada and on-call work is more common in the USA. There have been new laws introduced in all six countries at some level in response to claims that non-guaranteed hours and working time uncertainty negatively impact workers.
An international perspective on zero-hour contracts
In the UK, where zero hours contracts have received the most public attention of the countries, the legislative response by the government has been of a very minimal nature. It has regulated the use of exclusivity clauses in employment contracts, that is, clauses which prohibit workers from having a second job. Jeremias Prassl, an employment law academic in the UK, referred to the focus on exclusivity clauses as a ‘red herring’ relative to other problems identified in relation to zero hours contracts. In New Zealand, a trade union campaign over non-guaranteed hours in fast food led to collective agreements on working hours in that industry and also to a national debate about zero hours work. Under union, media and political pressure, the government introduced the Employment Relations Amendment Act 2016 which regulates the use of zero hours work but only in situations where an employee is required to be available to an employer. In the USA, while there has been media and union pressure on large companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch and The Gap to end on-call practices, on-call work has not received much consideration at the federal level. However, there have been some potentially influential laws and court decisions at state level. In February this year, a Los Angeles court ruled that employees are entitled to ‘reporting time’ pay e.g. if employees are required to phone their employer two hours before a shift to check that it is available, they are entitled to be paid for those two hours. Some US states have laws which provide protections in relation to advance notice and ensuring existing employees are offered additional working hours before an employer hires new people. Similarly in Canada, the provincial or territory level is more important than the national-level and regulations include minimum hours for a shift and minimum advance notice for a shift.
In Australia casual work is extensive and much of this can involve non-guaranteed hours. Casual workers have few employment rights, other than being entitled to a higher hourly wagerate than non-casual workers. Iain Campbell from University of Melbourne argues that rather than this rate being a ‘wage premium’, it is often a ‘figleaf’ and casual employees are cheaper to organisations than other forms of employment. Some ‘awards’, which set legally binding minimum pay and conditions for certain sectors provide for minimum hours in a shift and a right for casual workers to request a standard full-time or part-time job from their employer.
Is progress being made?
The effectiveness of regulations on zero hours and on-call work depend on a wide variety of factors including the coverage of workers, scope of issues and strength of enforcement. Overall, the laws introduced in the six countries have generally sought to regulate some of the features of non-guaranteed hours such as minimum notice, minimum shift hours and information to employees. None ban zero hours work completely, none provide workers with a guaranteed minimum number of hours and none provide workers with certainty over the scheduling of their hours. Employers in each country have opposed such regulations arguing that labour flexibility is necessary for operational demands, limiting the scope of laws.
See O'Sullivan, M., Turner, T., Lavelle, J., McMahon, J., Murphy, C., Ryan, L., Gunnigle, P. (eds). Zero Hours and On-call Work in Anglo-Saxon Countries.Springer: Singapore. Forthcoming, 2019.
Dr Michelle O'Sullivan's expertise is primarily on the quality of work and precarious work, with particular attention on public policy.
Chair of the Irish Association for Industrial Relations, Co-Chair of the Work, Employment and Organisation Special Interest Group in the Irish Academy of Management, is a member of the Board of Directors of TASC and the Scientific Council of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies. She was a Board Member of the Workplace Relations Commission from 2015-2021.