BUSINESS Secretary Vince Cable will today promise a crackdown on zero-hours contracts and a move to increase the minimum wage as part of a package to improve conditions in the workplace.
The cabinet minister will use his speech to the Lib Dem conference to announce a consultation to examine what he claims are “abuses in the system” of employees on zero-hours contracts.
Mr Cable will say that the controversial employment practice, where workers are denied any fixed hours, are “much more widely used than we had previously thought”.
He will also pledge to ask the Low Pay Commission to look at how the minimum wage can be allowed “to rise faster than current conditions allow” without harming employment prospects.
Mr Cable’s speech to the Lib Dems’ annual conference in Glasgow will be seen as an attempt to challenge the party’s Conservative coalition partners on the issue of workers’ rights.
The coalition government has made controversial changes to employment rights, including raising the exemption period for unfair dismissal to two years, so someone sacked from their job after less than that is unable to make a claim.
Mr Cable will also unveil proposals to improve transparency surrounding the ownership of businesses by making it easier to disqualify “rogue directors” of companies for longer periods.
He will say: “We need to see fairness as well as trust in our director disqualification regime. For too long, a small rotten core has got away with either a slap on the wrist, a ban from working in their own industry or, at the most, a time-limited ban.
“This neglects the fact that rogue directors’ decisions affect the lives of the employees they are responsible for and the businesses they deal with.
“That is why I will beef up the laws to ban rogue directors from running British companies so dodgy directors face the strongest possible consequences for their irresponsible actions.”
Meanwhile, Mr Cable’s minimum wage and zero-hours contract plans will also be seen as a direct challenge to Labour on the issue of employment rights ahead of the next general election.
The minimum wage was seen as one of Labour’s flagship policies, introduced during its 13 years in power between 1997 and 2010.
The Business Secretary is expected to tell Lib Dem activists that the consultation would focus on the issue of “exclusivity” where workers on zero-hours contracts are banned by their employers from seeking work with other firms.
Mr Cable will say: “I have been examining closely the issue of zero-hour contracts over the last few months. We’ve been speaking to businesses, trade unions and other groups both about their downsides and their benefits.
“It is clear that they are much more widely used than we had previously thought.
“It is also clear that there are abuses in the system, especially around the issue of exclusivity, which some employers are demanding from workers on these contracts.
“We will proceed to issue a consultation, which will explore how to tackle any abuses in the system, particularly around exclusivity. I am determined to make sure people are paid and treated fairly, while helping to keep people employed in these delicate economic times.”
The minimum wage is currently set at £6.31 for workers aged over 21, with a rate of £5.03 for 18- to 20-year-olds and £3.72 for under 18s.
Mr Cable will today set out plans to ask the Low Pay Commission to look at raising the rates in addition to the incremental increases that are usually made annually.
He will say: “The national minimum wage is a vital safety net in protecting the low paid. However, as signs of an economic recovery start to emerge, we need to do more to make sure that the benefits of growth are shared fairly across the board.
Labour MSP Richard Baker said: “Vince Cable talks about improving workers rights, but the bleak reality is that the coalition, government has eroded workers rights.
“Vince Cable’s plans fall far short of what Labour would deliver in office.”
Tory MSP Alex Johnstone said: “While we have accepted the principle of the minimum wage it would be the wrong time to massively drive up the rate.
“Although tackling low pay is vital, we must also be careful not to put job creation and economic recovery at risk.”