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Today on International Workers Day we are reflecting on the importance of enforceable work rights and access to justice. This is important for making rights a reality experienced and enjoyed by all.

Work rights are everyday rights which ensure people can earn a living to support themselves and their family, in safe and healthy circumstances, and be treated fairly and free from discrimination. When this does not happen, for example when people are not paid what they are owed or sacked unfairly, it is important that they can raise a complaint and seek a remedy for the situation.

Employment Tribunals play an important role in ensuring that work rights are enforced and that employers comply with their legal obligations. At the moment there is no fee to bring a complaint in the Employment Tribunal. This is a result of the very important case brought by the trade union UNISON after fees were introduced in 2013. The Supreme Court later ruled that the fees were unlawful.

The UK Government has now proposed a reintroduction of Employment Tribunal fees. The fees are lower than before, but the proposed rate of £55 is not as ‘modest’ as has been claimed. To put this figure in context, the average household weekly expenditure on food for 2022 was £56.50, only slightly above the proposed fee. In this sense the fee is far from modest – it is almost equivalent to an essential household expenditure. This indicates a concerning disconnect between those making policy decisions and reality on the ground for too many people in the UK.

And while the UK Government might claim that there is a scheme to ‘Help with Fees’ for those who cannot afford them, it does not appear fit for purpose. Someone working full time, earning the ‘National Living Wage’, would be deemed to earn too much to be eligible for a full fee exemption. And it is worth remembering that the ‘National Living Wage’ is not a real living wage, as set out in our evidence to the UN Committee on ESCR, because it does not reflect the real cost of living.

The UK Government is obliged to respect and protect the right to an adequate standard of living. This would be undermined by the requirement to pay fees to access justice which are affordable for some only by potentially sacrificing or limiting essential expenditure such as the household food budget.

There is a very real risk that the proposed fees will not only price people out of access to justice, but out of justice itself. And there is likely to be a disproportionate impact on certain groups and low-income families. This leaves people not only at risk of unjust and unfavourable working conditions, but also being trapped in these conditions which may lead to even greater risk of exploitation and rights abuses.

Rights do not have to removed altogether to leave protections weak. Rights can be weakened by the inadequacy of the mechanisms for access to justice and enforcement. And weak protections put everyone’s rights at risk.

Today on International Workers Day it is more important than ever that we push back and resist the undermining of everyday rights in this way.

Background image: Cogeneration by Preeti Singh for CoGenerate x Fine Acts