Dear Ethel | Issue 22

Dear Ethel | Issue 22

Working During Exams

Dear Ethel,

A couple of months ago, I got a job as a kitchen hand and was told that I would be rostered between 10 and 12 hours per week. The first two weeks were OK, but then someone left and I got rostered on for 20 hours. When I said I couldn’t do those hours, my boss said I had signed a contract and I had to do them. Now I want to leave, but my contract states that I have to give two months’ notice or I forfeit my pay. I’m not going to be able to get through exams if I have to work that many hours and I can’t afford not to get paid. What can I do?

Without looking at the contract that you’ve signed, it looks like you’re on what is commonly referred to as a “zero-hour” contract, where you are obliged to work as little (or in your case, as much) as the business owner dictates.

There have been some recent moves to stop employers using zero-hour contracts, and many fast food outlets have agreed to stop this practice. Unfortunately though, if you have already signed a contract, it is likely to be legally binding unless your employer has broken the law. 

We are not legal experts, so we highly recommend that you phone New Zealand at Work to discuss the legality of your situation. Their freephone number is 0800 20 90 20 and their website is You could also get some free legal advice from Community Law Otago, located in Filleul Street (take your contract in with you).

The other thing to consider is a mediated conversation with your employer. We have attended these before to represent the interests of students and have been able to negotiate more reasonable terms for the students, either hours of work or flexibility around ending employment. As with most things, it is always good to be able to work things out through honest and open communication if at all possible. If you would like us to arrange that, please drop in to 5 Ethel B to have a chat.

The moral of this story is please read any contract carefully before you sign and if anything seems dodgy or confusing, seek some advice! It doesn’t matter if it’s for a job, a flat, a loan, insurance — anything at all — time taken to read will always be worth its weight in gold and may save you a lot of grief later.

This article first appeared in Issue 22, 2015.
Posted 3:20pm Sunday 6th September 2015 by Student Support.