Frances O’Grady slams zero-hours contracts in friendly clash with Vince Cable

TUC boss talks workers' rights with Lib Dem grandee at party conference


TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady trashed zero-hours contracts at the Liberal Democrats party conference, taking issue with fellow panelist Vince Cable’s apparent defence of the ‘gig economy’.

Speaking today at an event organised by the Social Liberal Forum, Cable said an Uber driver had told him they were happy with ‘flexible’ employment, and that the issue was complicated.

But O’Grady replied:

‘Flexibility is good when it goes both ways. Now there are huge swathes of the work force where flexibility is all one way, and the worker doesn’t seem to have any rights or any choice.’

She noted that zero-hours contracts have grown 21 per cent in a year, adding:

‘I don’t think that’s all students. That’s employers knowing they can get away with it and as a result they have all the power they know they can exploit it. […]

I think every worker in Britain should have a right to guraranteed hours. […]

The evidence is very clear that there is a very strong link between these contracts and getting paid less.’

O’Grady compared the so-called gig economy, where workers have no-fixed hours, to how things were ‘at the turn of the 20th century’, where people would wait outside factories in the hope of work that day.

She this state of affairs prompted Winston Churchill, then a Liberal MP, to set up wages councils,not just for workers, but to protect good employers who compete against less scrupulous ones.

Cable has been staking out a position on the right of the Lib Dems all conference, in particular on a possible second EU referendum and free movement of people as the price of single market membership. 

He and O’Grady joked about their differences when he was Business Secretary as part of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition of 2010 and 2015, including on having workers on company boards.

However, Cable said his view now is having workers on boards should be supported – though he expressed doubts this would curb executive pay, citing Charlie Mayfield, chariman of John Lewis, whose pay was voted for by its workers.

Adam Barnett is staff writer for Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBarnett13 

See: The changes at Sports Direct aren’t enough – government must act on zero-hours contracts

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