Zero Does Not Always Mean Nothing

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Recent pickets on Dunnes Stores by many of its employees attracted significant media attention.  There was much commentary in respect of ‘zero-hours’ contracts and what an abomination they are!  The strong implication, in news items that did not explain the issues, was that zero-hours contract meant no pay.  The general understanding appeared to be that employees are required to be available for work, but might not get rostered for any work, and therefore, would not get any pay in a given week.  We are not aware of any suggestion that Dunnes Stores were/are in breach of the provisions of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 which requires that an employer pays an employee for at least 25% of the hours for which s/he must be available, or 15 hours, whichever is the lesser.  So, once a contract fails to provide for a minimum number of hours work, it must comply with this provision.  In our experience, such contracts are put to good use in circumstances where it suits both employer and employee to have full flexibility – issues arise where one week the employer may insist that the person be available for, e.g. 40 hours as chosen by the employer, and the next week, the employee, while remaining available for work for long opening hours over a seven-day roster, may not get any work and be paid for only fifteen hours. For those Dunnes Stores workers, or workers in any other company, 15 hours at minimum wage amounts to a gross payment of €129.75, compared with €346 for a 40-hour week.  Those requiring certainty of income have a valid gripe, however, in a buoyant labour market, maybe they should vote with their feet.

The Minister for Business and Employment has appointed the University of Limerick to conduct a study into the prevalence and impact of zero- and low-hour contracts.  They are expected to report on their findings, and any policy recommendations, within six months