A zero hours contract is unusual in that it does not oblige an employer to provide a minimum number of hours work. Contracts of this type, which are primarily used in the hospitality, retail and manufacturing sectors, can give either "worker" or "employee" status. Zero hours workers have the same rights as regular workers such as the right to minimum wage and holidays and zero hours employees can also gain protection from unfair dismissal.
Initially the big bad wolf with these contracts was the use of exclusivity clauses. Theses clauses prevented workers from accepting work with other companies while engaged under a zero hours contract. They were therefore entirely dependant on getting work from one company, and if no work was offered then they had no way of earning an income.
In May 2015 the UK Government brought into force regulations preventing the use of exclusivity clauses in zero hours contracts. Further protection took effect in January 2016 with regulations providing protection from unfair dismissal for employees where the principal reason for the dismissal is that the employee breached an exclusivity clause in their contract. Unlike normal unfair dismissal claims (which require an employee to have at least 2 years' service) there is no service requirement needed to make a claim.
Workers on these contracts also benefitted from the introduction of these regulations. They are now protected from any detriment (which can include termination of their contract) should they work for another employer in breach of an exclusivity clause.
Over the summer the activities of Sports Direct have been the subject of considerable scrutiny, with the use of zero hours contracts being linked, by the press, to numerous abuses of workers. These were alleged to include punishing staff by reducing their hours when they had to take time off to collect sick children from school or visit a dying relative.