Zero hours contracts can work very well.
Zero hours contracts can work very well with no commitment from the employer to provide work and no commitment for the employee to work if asked, there is flexibility on both sides. Such an arrangement works well, for example, for a retired driver who delivers cars then hitches home, for a supply teacher who works if they can get child-care in place, and for an agency carer who does occasional night shifts at short notice. Zero hours contracts work very well, so long as the employee can say no when asked to work: in other words when there is zero commitment from both sides.
Why zero hours contracts have kept being mentioned is because some of them have a one-sided commitment. The employer does not have to provide any work or any pay. However, the employee has to be available for work if asked. This means that the employee cannot work for anyone else: an exclusivity clause. The employee has to make themselves available but may end up with no work and no pay: a really unfair relationship, exploiting an imbalance of power. Those who can find nothing better may take it for the chance of being given some work.
The Government has made zero hours exclusivity clauses illegal for this reason, with effect from 26 May 2015. The law will ban exclusivity for all employees who earn below a certain level of weekly wages. It will not apply to high earners (expected to be £20 plus per hour). Employees who are covered by the ban will have protection from ‘detrimental treatment’ from an employer who has them on a zero hours contract and then does not like it if they work elsewhere.
A legal right is only as good as the ability to enforce it. By definition most people affected will be low earners. How likely is it that they will have the knowledge and money to pay the Tribunal fees to enforce their rights? Ironically, almost zero, so this new right and protection may not be worth the paper it’s written on to those who are being exploited. The imbalance of power will remain, bad employers will carry on regardless and the poor will always be with us.