The Government-financed Equal Opportunities Commission has dropped any pretence of political neutrality on the issue of low pay by backing two key Labour Party policies.
In a study published today, the commission calls for a statutory minimum wage and the encouragement of collective bargaining by unions, both of which are anathema to the Conservative Party.
Ministers last year abolished wages councils, which set minimum pay for two million workers, most of them women, and also insisted that the promotion of collective bargaining be deleted from the "mission statement" of the conciliation service Acas.
Kamlesh Bahl, commission chairwoman and a former Conservative activist, said she was "deeply concerned" about low pay because it was a critical factor in the continuing wage gap between men and women.
Based on criteria used by the European Commission and the Low Pay Unit, the report says that at least four million women in Britain are low-paid - more than one-third of all female workers.
The study says the problem is affecting an increasing number of women and the trend is expected to continue. Recent employment projections predict there will be about 30,000 additional low-paid jobs in 2000 - most part-time and in the service sector where women predominate.
Unions are urged to develop strategies to increase membership in non-unionised areas where low pay is prevalent, including among ethnic minority women. "They should also ensure that low-paid workers have access to employment benefits and encourage collective bargaining in this area."
The report says: "A statutory minimum wage is one way to alleviate low pay and reduce the gap between men and women.
"Its effectiveness will depend on the level set and the method of enforcement. …