Zero-hour contracts: a contentious employment law issue

How the Sports Direct scandal has caused an outcry against zero-hour contracts

Following the recent Sports Direct scandal, which exposed the appalling working conditions endured by Sports Direct warehouse staff, the controversial issue of zero-hour contracts is back firmly in the limelight. Here we discuss the nature of zero-hour contracts in relation to the Sports Direct exposé.

The Guardian’s investigation into the international sports retailer, Sports Direct, revealed an environment that was ruled by fear; a fear that was propelled by the powerlessness of workers employed under zero-hour contracts.

The exposé made headlines last week, as founder and director of the firm, Mark Ashley admitted breaching a number of employment laws, including not paying his warehouse employees in line with the national minimum wage.

The Guardian found that workers at Sports Direct’s main warehouse were required to stay behind after shifts for up to 20 minutes without payment, while they queued up to be searched by paranoid management.

Employees were also docked 15 minutes of pay when they clocked in just a minute late, and were hounded by constant tannoy announcements urging them to work faster. On a more sinister note, reports suggest a number of health and safety issues, including the birth of a baby in the warehouse toilets that went ignored.

Sports Direct management felt it could operate in this immoral manner because 80 per cent of its workers are employed on zero-hour contracts, which renders them powerless due to the unstable nature of their employment.

Those who kick up a fuss are at risk of being given no working hours week after week from irritated management, and yet they are still classed as employed in the eyes of the Department for Work and Pensions, meaning they are not entitled to job seeker’s allowance if they quit to find a more desirable position.

Although employees with a zero-hour contract are entitled to annual leave and the national living wage, they are often treated as sub-standard workers and are excluded from bonuses and other employee benefits that a company may offer.

In 2015, the Labour Force Survey found that 744,000 people are employed on a zero-hour contract, but this figure is thought to be much higher in reality. There are now calls from MPs to ban this type of employment contract, but Prime Minister David Cameron said there are currently no plans to do so.

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