Zero-hours contracts to face legal challenge

A Sports Direct employee has challenged the legality of the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts for part-time employees.

A number of UK employers have come under the spotlight after systematic naming of part-time staff as “casual workers” and affording them only a zero-hours contract as a result. The government has been reviewing the use of zero-hour contracts and is expected to make recommendations when parliament reconvenes in September.

Zahera Gabriel-Abraham, age 30 from London, has brought the legal action against Sports Direct which is in part funded by the campaign community 38 Degrees.

Ms Gabriel-Abraham claims that regardless of the “casual” label, the reality of her working conditions meant that she was entitled to be treated the same as full-time workers with what she perceives as a more favourable contract.

The Sports Direct Group employer some 23,000 individuals across its’ stores and businesses, of which some 20,000 are part-time sales assistants employed through zero-hours contracts. It would appear that what prompted the action may have been the announcement that the Sports Direct Group would be awarding its staff an average of 12,000 shares each.

Although on the surface a very generous move from the employer, all of the part-time staff were ineligible for the share offer. Furthermore, the nature of a zero-hours contract meant they were also denied sick pay and could not accrue annual leave.

Gabriel-Abraham claims in reality the role and responsibilities of a part-time employee differed little to a full-time employee, with part-time staff used to supplement and cover for the full-timers.

She argues that the part-time employees in this context are genuine employees in the conventional sense of the word, and as such to deny holidays, sick pay and other bonuses is unlawful.

Executive Director of 38 Degree, David Babbs, whose group is partly funding the legal action, commented: “These contracts clearly work in certain circumstances, but in others they are being abused by employers to restrict people’s rights. That is why we have asked our members to help fund this legal action – so we can send a clear message to that thousands of people are standing with Gabriel-Abraham in her legal claim.”

Elsewhere, other organisations are also coming under fire for alleged exploitative use of zero-hours contracts.

Unison has raised concerns over the use of such contracts in the social care sector. The union has urged Kent County Council to ensure that staff working for private contractors on social care contracts are not exploited. The council revealed that it currently carried out no checks on the status of social care workers employed via contractors, and that furthermore it has over 800 employees on zero-hours contracts itself.