Legislation could be introduced before the end of this Parliament to tackle the exploitation of workers on zero-hours contracts, Business Secretary Vince Cable announced today.
Mr Cable floated proposals for new protections as part of a package of measures designed to make the workplace and wages "fairer for everyone", which also featured moves to deal with rogue company directors and new research on the possibility of more generous increases in the minimum wage.
Aides said that the moves - which have approval across the coalition Government - were a mark of the extent to which Liberal Democrat ministers have shifted the agenda on employment rights since Conservatives last year failed to push through the recommendations of the Beecroft Report to let bosses "fire at will".
The Office for National Statistics has estimated that around 250,000 workers are on zero hours contracts - under which they have no guarantee of how much work they will be given each week - but the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development put the figure closer to 1 million, while a recent union survey suggested the arrangements could affect as many as 5.5 million.
Mr Cable ordered an internal review by his Department for Business and Skills earlier this year, which revealed that the contracts were "much more widely used than we had previously thought".
In a keynote speech to the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow today, he will announce a consultation to explore how to tackle abuses - particularly relating to the issue of "exclusivity", where employers do not offer guaranteed hours but insist that workers do not work for anyone else.
The consultation is expected to conclude in the new year and aides said that it could result in legislation in next May's Queen's Speech, if Government time is available. There will be no promise to ban zero hours contracts or exclusivity agreements, as Mr Cable believes that they are suited to some occupations.
But he is likely to press ahead with plans to create a legal definition of a zero-hours contract; limit exclusivity clauses; ensure bosses make clear how much a worker can expect to earn each month; and end the "climate of fear" under which some workers dare not turn down shifts out of anxiety that they will be frozen out from future employment.
Mr Cable will say: "It is clear that there are abuses in the system, especially around the issue of exclusivity which some employers are demanding from workers on these contracts. I am determined to make sure people are paid and treated fairly, while helping to keep people employed in these delicate economic times."
He will also announce he intends to legislate to make it easier to prosecute fraudulent or reckless directors, in the wake of scandals affecting the banking sector, nursing homes and the Christmas savings firm Farepak.
New powers will:
Assist individuals seeking compensation for damage caused by a director's criminal or reckless behaviour;
Ensure that directors banned from running companies abroad cannot come to the UK and run a firm here;
Extend the time available to investigate complex cases of director misconduct; and
Introduce corporate training for banned directors who want to run a company again.
"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."
Following Labour accusations that the coalition has produced a "recovery for the rich" , Mr Cable will promise to act to ensure that the benefits of growth are shared "fairly across the board".
He has previously made clear that he wants to restore the value of the National M inimum Wage, which he estimates has fallen in real terms by 10% to 12% since the crash of 2008. Now he is asking the Low Pay Commission to carry out a study on what conditions would be needed for the minimum wage to rise more quickly than it has in recent years without costing jobs.
"The National Minimum Wage is a vital safety net in protecting the low paid," Mr Cable will say. "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.
"The Low Pay Commission every year carries out a huge amount of valuable, detailed work looking at labour conditions across the economy. Today, in addition to their ongoing annual remit, I am asking them to extend this expertise to help the Government and business understand how we can deal with the issue of low wages in the economy. In particular I have asked them to look at what economic conditions would be needed to allow the National Minimum Wage to rise by more than current conditions allow."
Mr Clegg told BBC Radio 5 Live: "One of the things Vince Cable is talking about is making sure that company directors are more accountable for the decisions their companies take.
"I don't think we can have this buck-passing culture in some of our banks which happened under Labour, where people messed things up and everybody else - all other taxpayers in the country - had to bail them out and they got away with it pretty well scot-free.
"That culture has to end. We cannot ever again have people like that putting a gun to the head of the British economy."