Fixed-term workers have the same minimum rights as permanent workers. Find out what a fixed-term contract is and what extra protections there are for fixed-term employees.
What does 'fixed-term' mean?
There are special regulations protecting fixed-term employees which define a fixed-term employee as 'a person with a contract of employment which is due to end when a specified date is reached, a specified event does or does not happen or a specified task has been completed'. Examples of fixed-term employees are:
- additional staff taken on for six months during a peak period
- a specialist employee taken on for the duration of a project
- someone employed to cover during another employee's maternity leave
If someone is taken on as 'temporary' but without a contract that will end on a particular date, event or completion of a task; they are not covered by the regulations.
The Fixed-Term Work and Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) only apply to employees who are people who have a fixed-term employment contract with the business where they work. They don’t cover agency workers (‘temps’) who have a contract with an outside company, apprentices, or students and other trainees on work-experience placements or temporary work schemes.
Why employers take on fixed-term employees
Taking on fixed-term employees lets employers bring in people with special skills or employ extra labour when it is needed. A fixed-term contract allows both employee and employer to be flexible in their commitment. Both can benefit, as the employer has access to specialised skills to meet a particular need, while the employee can gain broader experience. In some companies, fixed-term employees are paid more than permanent staff, either because of their special skills, or to compensate for the temporary nature of the job.
Fixed-term employees and permanent staff - comparing treatment
The general rule is that except where there's good reason, employers mustn't treat fixed-term employees less than permanent employees doing the same, or largely the same, job. This means that fixed-term employees have the right, except where there's good reason, to:
- the same pay and conditions
- the same or equivalent benefits package
- access to an occupational (company) pension scheme (except perhaps where the fixed-term contract is for less than two years)
- the right to be informed about permanent employment opportunities in the organisation
However, fixed-term employees don't have the right to the same pay, conditions and benefits if their overall terms and conditions, although different from those for permanent employees, are just as good or better. For example, an employer can choose to give fixed-term employees better pay instead of pension rights. Not renewing a fixed-term contract is treated as a dismissal, so if the contract is not renewed fixed-term employees also have:
- full redundancy rights (if continuously employed for two years or more, unless they signed a clause waiving their right to a redundancy payment before 1 October 2002)
- statutory protection against unfair dismissal (once they have one year's service).
- Contracts of employment: an introduction
- The employment contract (nibusinessinfo website)
- Unfair dismissal
Ending a fixed-term contract
Normally a fixed-term contract comes to an end automatically once it has reached its agreed end point - there is no need for an employer to give notice. Your employer is still required to act fairly and to follow the minimum required dismissal procedure, otherwise you would be able to make an unfair dismissal claim. If your contract is to cover someone on maternity leave, if your contract is finished when they return your dismissal will normally be fair.
Check the terms of your contract. If it says your employment can be ended early and your employer has given proper notice, there's little you can do. However, if it doesn't say anything, your employer may be in breach of contract.
If you worked past the end of your contract having been kept on for a year when your original contract was for three months, there’s an implied agreement by your employer to change the end date. You would then have the right to be given proper notice if your employer wanted to dismiss you.
For how long can an employer keep renewing a fixed-term contract?
There's a limit of four years on how long an employee can be kept on successive fixed-term contracts. If your contract is renewed after that, you become a permanent employee, unless the employer can show a good reason why you should stay on a fixed-term contract. Only service from 1 October 2002 is counted.
Can an employer renew a fixed-term contract on less favourable terms?
If you're offered a renewed contact on less favourable terms, you can refuse to accept it, and try to negotiate with your employer. If they won't change the terms, you'll need to choose between accepting the amended contract or treating the contract as being at an end. If the contract does end, you may be able to claim unfair dismissal.
Being treated less than your permanent colleagues?
If you are on a fixed-term contract and are being treated less than your permanent colleagues, firstly raise the matter with your manager and/or HR contact. If the matter still isn’t sorted out, ask your employer for a written statement explaining why they’re treating you less. Your next step should be to make a written complaint under your employer’s standard grievance procedure.
If you cannot sort the matter out with your employer, the last resort is to complain to an Industrial Tribunal. You must make the claim within three months of the occurrence (if a single event) or last incident if the treatment has been ongoing of less favourable treatment, unless you’re still involved in the grievance procedure.
Where can you get help?
The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues. You can contact the LRA on 028 9032 1442 from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm Monday to Friday.
Your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) can provide free and impartial advice. You can find your local CAB office in the phone book or online.
If you are a member of a trade union, you can get help, advice and support from them.