Labour is promising to increase the length of statutory maternity pay from nine to 12 months, if it wins power.
The party also wants large firms to have menopause workplace policies, in what it calls a “step-change” in working rights for women.
And it is promising to set up a body with powers to fine firms failing to report gender pay gaps.
The Conservatives say they would introduce “responsible reforms” to get more women into work.
Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said Labour’s “reckless plans would cripple businesses across the country”.
Business lobby group the CBI said it supported the extension of statutory maternity pay to 12 months and added that the next government “should work with business to develop policies that tackle gender inequality in ways that work for everyone”.
Election campaigning is under way ahead of voters going to the polls on 12 December.
Currently women on maternity leave are entitled to 90% of average weekly earnings for the first six weeks, then 90% of average weekly earnings or £148.68 (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks.
There is no statutory entitlement for the following three months.
Labour says it will ensure women continue to get the latter rate during this period.
The party also wants to create a new Workers’ Protection Agency in partnership with HM Revenue and Customs with powers to fine businesses that fail to report their gender pay, public action plans to reduce pay gaps or take satisfactory measures to close the pay gap.
Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics indicate that in the year to April 2019, the gender pay gap for full-time workers rose to 8.9% in the UK – up from 8.6% the previous year.
The gender pay gap is the percentage difference between average hourly earnings for men and women.
By law, companies, charities and public sector departments of 250 employees or more must publish their gender pay gap figures. Labour says its Workers’ Protection Agency will “enforce compliance”.
The party also wants to amend the reporting regulations, so that by 2020 the threshold is lowered to workplaces with more than 50 employees.
Labour also says it will:
- give all workers the right to choose working hours that suit them from day one of the job
- require large employers to introduce a menopause workplace policy
- tackle sexual harassment in the workplace
- enshrine the role of equalities representatives in law to protect workers from discrimination
Labour says it wants to transform the workplace for women. It’s a powerful statement of intent from the party.
It’s a policy pitched at a large chunk of the electorate. The proposals on maternity pay are obviously designed to appeal to younger women, who want to start or extend a family. But there are also plans for a “menopause policy”, which will force companies to address the needs of women at a very different stage in their lives.
And then there are the measures to reduce the gender pay gap, and create a right to flexible working. That would affect pretty much every female employee.
Employers might complain about the bureaucracy and expense involved in much of this – “the wrong answers to the right questions” is how the CBI puts it – but there’s no question there’s a challenge here to the other parties.
Labour wants to be seen as the champion of working women. The rival parties will have to find ways to respond.
As part of its menopause workplace policy plan, Labour wants companies with more than 250 employees to provide training for line managers on the menopause, provide flexible working arrangements and carry out risk assessments to consider the needs of women.
Labour wants to make employers liable for sexual harassment experienced by staff by “third parties” such as clients, require employers to publish their policies and lengthen the timeframe within which employment tribunals can be taken from three months to six months.
Shadow women and equalities secretary Dawn Butler said she was “sick” of how women are treated at work, as there have been “years” of concerns that have been ignored.
“Audits aren’t enough; we know there’s a problem that needs fixing. So we will do something about it,” she said.
“We’ll also extend the amount of time a new mother can spend with her newborn by extending statutory maternity pay to 12 months, so that all mothers can afford to spend those vital early months with their baby.
“Labour will deliver a workplace revolution to bring about a step-change in how women are treated at work. We’ll boost pay, increase flexibility, and strengthen protections against harassment and discrimination.”
But Business Secretary Mrs Leadsom said a vote for Labour “won’t solve anything”.
“Only the Conservatives will get Brexit done so we can all move on to focus on people’s priorities like making the UK the best place to work and run a business with responsible reforms to increase flexible working, get more women back into work and ensure equality of opportunity regardless of gender, age, race or class,” she said.
Matthew Percival, the CBI’s director of people and skills policy, said many businesses were taking steps to make their workplaces more inclusive.
“The CBI has long supported the reintroduction of protection against third-party harassment and the extension of statutory maternity pay to 12 months – which will also support fathers taking shared parental leave,” he said.
“Needing government approval to set working patterns and company diversity action plans are bureaucratic to the point of being ineffective and unaffordable.
“They are the wrong answers to the right questions. The next government should work with business to develop policies that tackle gender inequality in ways that work for everyone.”