As I have pointed out in another of this month’s articles there seems to be common consent on the part of politicians that there is a need to crack down on the exploitation of employees through zero hours contracts, particularly when those contracts demand exclusivity.
Sports Direct is one of the highest profile users of zero hours contracts, no doubt because nearly 90% of its staff are employed under them.
Earlier this week details emerged of a claim brought by Zahera Gabriel-Abrahem, a former Sports Direct worker who was employed on a zero hours contract. She brought a claim on the basis that the terms of the zero hours contracts used by Sports Direct discriminated against part time workers because they were treated less favourably than full time workers.
Back in August 2013 I attempted to establish just what is a zero hours contract since they are not legally defined. While most understand that the main characteristic is that the employer is not obliged to provide a set number of hours’ work or, for that matter, any work, there are often other drawbacks for employees lurking within the contract terms. This is the issue that was highlighted by Ms Gabriel-Abrahem. She had suffered panic attacks brought on by the lack of job and financial security that resulted from the zero hours terms. In doing so she was supported by 5000 members of the campaign group 38 Degrees who assisted with legal costs, while 125,000 people emailed the chief executive and head of retail at Sports Direct, urging them to switch to guaranteed hours contracts.
A month before the employment tribunal claim was due to be heard, Sports Direct has agreed terms for settlement of the claim. Those terms include requirements for Sports Direct to make clear in job adverts, contracts and staff rooms that it does not guarantee work, sick pay or holiday pay. However, Sports Direct have made clear that the settlement has been made without any admission of liability and, significantly, they will carry on using zero hours contracts.
However, that is not the end of the story for Sports Direct. They are also facing a claim by some 300 zero hours contract workers that they were excluded from a multi-million pound bonus that was only paid out to permanent workers. The claim is estimated to be worth approximately £4m as it stands but it may increase significantly since 20,000 Sports Direct employees are on zero hours contracts and many of them may add their names to the action. A take up of, say, 50% of the existing workforce would lead to a claim worth over £130m.