In our guide to zero-hour contracts we looked in detail at what these contracts are, and whether casual workers could ever become employees.

Zero-hour contracts have been in the news most of this year, and we reported in June that the TUC had called on the Government to start a review of these contracts, which the Government announced they would do (with the Labour Party announcing they would ban these contracts if they were elected in 2015). More details of this review are here.

Now, at the beginning of August an ex-worker of Sports Direct filed an employment tribunal claim to challenge the legality of the zero-hour contracts that Sports Direct use.

Sports Direct have been in the news a lot lately too, with its staff receiving high value shares recently – but their workers on zero-hours contracts are not eligible for this scheme.  The Sports Direct Group employs around 23,000 employees and it is believed that 20,000 of these are part-time sales assistants on zero-hour contracts.

Zahera Gabriel-Abraham is the worker who bought the claim (which is being funded by members of 38 Degrees, one of the UK’s biggest campaigning communities, through donations). Gabriel-Abraham started work in October 2012 as a part-time sales assistant, termed as a ‘casual’ worker and left the retailer last month. Gabriel claims that the reality of her working arrangement with Sports Direct entitled her to be treated no less favourably than full-time staff.

The law firm acting for Gabriel says all casual staff at Sports Direct are denied paid annual leave and sick pay and other bonuses and have an obligation to go to work when they are asked to (they do not have the flexibility to say no and their contracts prevent them from doing other work).

Elizabeth George, a barrister at Leigh Day, which is acting for Ms Gabriel-Abraham, said:

“We are not arguing that employers cannot have genuine flexible contracts, but the contract under which Ms Gabriel-Abraham worked, and which all SportsDirect.com 20,000 part-time employees appear to be working, has no flexibility at all for those people who sign them.

“There was no practical difference between the obligations put on my client by the company and those placed on full-time staff.”

Gabriel also alleges indirect sex discrimination, claiming that the company’s working practices discriminate against women, and also that Sports Direct is in breach of working time regulations.

Miss Gabriel-Abraham said:

“If you happen to fall out of line, or your manager thinks you have not done very well that week, your hours just get cut – you feel like you are just at the beck and call of the people above you.

“I felt I always had to play up to someone’s ego just to work – and in the end you just start to feel a bit bullied.

“Regularly they would call you in the middle of the day and they are like: ‘Can you come to work now?’ You feel like you have to say yes because if you say no you are seen as unreliable and the next week you don’t get a shift, it is as simple as that.”

This is going to be an interesting case to watch, as it could open the floodgates to thousands of claims from similarly aggrieved workers.

However, one employment lawyer at law firm, Kemp Little, said the claim is ‘unlikely to succeed’. They explain:

“Past European case law states that individuals working under zero-hour contracts could not compare themselves with full-time employees and so could not bring a claim of discrimination on the grounds of being a part-time worker.

“The ECJ found that zero-hour staff were not comparable with full-time colleagues precisely because full time colleagues were required to work a fixed number of hours each week for a fixed salary and did not have the option of refusing work.”

So, watch this space…  Towards the end of 2014 this case was (unfortunately) settled out of Court!

If you are an Employer and need ongoing professional help with any staff/freelance issues then talk to us at The HR Kiosk  – a Human Resources Consultancy for small businesses – you can use us for as much time as you need.

Please note that the advice given on this website and by our Advisors is guidance only and cannot be taken as an authoritative or current interpretation of the law. It can also not be seen as specific advice for individual cases. Please also note that there are differences in legislation in Northern Ireland.