UK workers on atypical contracts — including temporary, agency and zero-hours contract workers — will be entitled to more predictable working hours after legislation received Royal Assent and became law.

The Worker (Predictable Terms and Conditions) Act 2023 introduces a right for workers to request a more predictable working pattern, intending to redress the power imbalance between some employers and workers in atypical work. It encourages workers to begin conversations with their employers about their working patterns.

If working patterns lack certainty regarding the hours or times worked, or if a fixed-term contract is for less than 12 months, the worker can formally apply to change their working pattern to make it more predictable. Once a worker has made a request, their employer must notify them of their decision within one month.

”Although zero-hours contracts can often suit workers who want to work flexibly and employers whose needs vary, it is unfair for anyone to have to put their lives on hold to make themselves available for shifts that may never actually come. This Act helps to end the guessing game,” said Business and Trade Minister Kevin Hollinrake.

“A happier workforce means increased productivity, helping in turn to grow the economy, which is why we’ve backed these measures to give people across the UK more say over their working pattern,” Hollinrake said.

The government expects the measures in the Act and secondary legislation to come into force approximately a year after Royal Assent to give employers time to prepare for the changes. Subject to parliamentary approval, all workers and employees will have this new right once it comes into force. However, they must first have worked for their employer for a set period before applying; this period will be set out in regulations and is expected to be 26 weeks.

Given the proposal’s aim to support those with unpredictable contracts, workers will not have had to work continuously during that period.

In response to this legislation, the government has asked the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) to prepare a new statutory code of practice to help workers and businesses understand the law and to provide guidance on how requests should be made and considered. Acas will launch a public consultation on a draft code this autumn.

Acas Chief Executive Susan Clews said Acas is producing a new code of practice that will provide clear guidance on making and handling requests. “This will help workers and businesses understand the law and have constructive discussions around working arrangements that suit them both. Our draft code will be available for public consultation in the coming weeks, and we encourage all interested parties to respond and let us know their views.”

The change in the law is another step to address the new types of working patterns that are associated with the gig economy. It is a further attempt to give workers a bit more certainty over their hours of work and income; it originated as a private member’s bill which the government has backed.

These developments in the new law are an iterative process, according to Christopher Hitchins, London managing partner and employment lawyer at Katten UK, starting with the ban on exclusivity clauses for zero-hours workers a few years back. “This new law is another ‘right to request’ — like the right to request flexible working from day one, which is due to come sometime in 2024 — which can be turned down by an employer with appropriate reasoning, not an outright right,” Hitchins says.

Employers will be able to refuse a request based on one of six statutory grounds: additional cost, ability to meet customer demand, impact on recruitment, impact on other areas of the business, insufficiency of work during the proposed periods, and planned structural changes. However, requests for a predictable working pattern must be dealt with by the employer within one month.

In an article on the new law, law firm Osborne Clarke questions how effective the right will be in practice, given the potentially low penalties for non-compliance, and where there are no breaches of other laws, such as discrimination.

This also follows the implementation of the EU Directive 2019/1152 on Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions across EU member states this year, which helps to combat insufficient protection for workers in the most flexible non-standard and new forms of work.