The Government came under attack over employment and workers' rights yesterday at the Labour Party conference and was strongly criticised for not offering more support to the sacked Heathrow catering workers.

Union leaders sought support from delegates in Brighton for lawful supportive action in disputes similar to that at Gate Gourmet.

A card vote was taken and the result will be announced today. The conference did agree to another union demand that the controversial opt out from the Working Time Directive should end.

But Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson made it clear in a keynote speech that the Government was not prepared to do anything which risked returning the UK to the industrial relations climate of the 1970s.

Some of the sacked Gate Gourmet workers sat in the public gallery to listen to the debate and were given a standing ovation by delegates.

Tony Woodley, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said the 670 sacked workers had been treated "shamefully".

He called on Labour to stand up to the exploitation of lowpaid employees.

"It is not about going back to the 1970s, it is about protecting workers' dignity and stopping opportunist bosses victimising ordinary men and women.

"Gate Gourmet has exposed severe weaknesses in employment law which allows legal exploitation and bullying.

"No decent boss or politician can defend what Gate Gourmet did. Frankly I am disappointed that it took the Government seven weeks to condemn such terrible behaviour."

Mr Woodley said the union was not calling for wildcat action and was prepared to make solidarity support in disputes subject to a ballot of workers.

"What is this movement about if it is not solidarity with those least able to defend themselves?" asked Mr Woodley to loud applause.

The TGWU claimed it had the support of Labour's National Executive Committee for its motion but complained that a " shabby manoeuvre" by the party prevented members taking a vote. n A deal to end the bitter dispute involving hundreds of workers at Heathrow catering firm Gate Gourmet has been agreed, it was announced last night.

Several days of talks between the US-owned company and the Transport and General Workers' Union has led to a breakthrough.

The deal will be put to workers tomorrow.