LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Britain has moved to curb gender discrimination in the workplace by launching a bill which will force companies to reveal pay gaps between men and women.
The Equality Bill, which has been attacked by employer groups as unnecessary bureaucracy during a downturn, also bans age and social discrimination.
The government hopes to have the measure enshrined in law by early next year.
Equalities Minister Harriet Harman said the law contains a power compelling firms with 250 people or more to conduct a pay audit each year and publish the results.
The government hopes businesses will volunteer to perform the audit, but wants progress made by 2013 or it will make them mandatory.
Harman said the law would help remove secrecy around the issue of pay discrimination, where research has shown that women are paid more than 20 percent less than male colleagues.
The legislation will ban secrecy clauses that stop work colleagues comparing salaries, and trade unions would be able to use the information in pay bargaining, Harman said.
"You have either got to believe that women are 20 percent less intelligent, less hard working, less committed to their job, less experienced, less qualified, or you have got to believe that there is structural pay discrimination," Harman told a news conference.
"I think there will be a major role for trade unions in terms of collective bargaining when pay information is made public."
Harman rejected suggestions that the measures would harm businesses during a recession.
"Equality and opportunity underpins a meritocracy. This does not hold business back, this actually helps business," Harman said.
"When times are difficult, fairness is at a premium and it does not cost anything to be fair. It is part of helping the economy prosper for the future by tackling what is market failure because it is market failure to treat people unfairly for any reason and it is a legacy of backward-looking prejudices."
Reporting by Frank Prenesti; Editing by Steve Addison