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I n April, Japan will introduce an “industrial tribunal system” to settle individual labor disputes, such as those involving dismissals, working conditions and reassignments. The purpose of this system is to settle disputes expeditiously by limiting the number of trial sessions to no more than three.

Each session will be conducted by a three-member “industrial tribunal commission,” comprising one “labor relations referee” from management, one from labor, plus a district court judge. This participatory-type procedure is designed to work out specific solutions to labor disputes.

The referee representing management will be well-acquainted with corporate management and labor relations. Similarly, the referee representing labor — such as a full-time union official — will be well-versed in day-to-day workplace conditions. These members are expected to make use of their knowledge and experience to put the new system on the right track.

The commission, first of all, will need to produce as many concrete results as possible by presenting practical solutions acceptable to the parties involved, including the complainants. Holding a trial under the new system should be considered a measure of last resort. Preferably, seemingly intractable disputes should be referred to arbitration panels so that they can be settled in a more flexible and efficient manner.

The number of disputes involving labor relations has increased markedly in recent years, reflecting the prolonged business slump. In fiscal 2004, labor-dispute “counseling corners” throughout the country, including prefectural labor relations bureaus, received 820,000 complaints and inquiries. Of these, 160,000 cases involved individual labor disputes. Both numbers represent more than three times the figures for fiscal 2001.

It takes time and money to resolve these problems the conventional way — through labor relations commissions or district courts. The industrial tribunal system, for which enabling legislation passed the Diet in 2004, should benefit workers who otherwise would be unable to pursue a claim to resolution. The industrial tribunal commission will first try to produce a mediation plan. Failing that, it will hold a trial. A final decision is expected to be reached in about three months at the most.

If no objection is filed, the decision will be just as legally binding as an ordinary court-mediated settlement. If an objection is filed, the decision will lose its legal binding power. The dispute, however, can be settled through a civil trial in the same district court.

The new system calls for registering and training labor relations referees because neither labor nor management has been represented in labor-related trials so far. A national group studying labor-management relations conducted a training program from last May through November. Of the approximately 1,250 “graduates,” about 500 have already registered with district courts as referee candidates for labor and management.

Each participant in the program has each received recommendations from about 500 people — management-side participants from the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), and labor-side participants from the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren) and other labor groups. Labor and management need to work more closely together to put up as many qualified candidates as possible.

Meanwhile, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (Nichibenren) earlier this month conducted a mock trial in Tokyo via satellite hookups with local bar associations throughout the country. During the demonstration, a judge from the Tokyo District Court and referee candidates from labor and management handled a hypothetical case involving a worker’s dismissal.

One problem with a question-and-answer session is that disputes involving factual relations between the parties involved — including challenges of dismissals — will be difficult to resolve in a labor court because, contrary to the purpose of the new system, such a trial could become protracted. It has been suggested, rightly, that the parties involved should first consider carefully which method they prefer — industrial tribunal, civil trial, or arbitration through the labor relations commission.

Also worth noting is the suggestion that parties should present the necessary documents, such as petitions and replies, to the court at an early date so that referees can get a better picture of the dispute involved. That would clarify the points at issue ahead of the trial and speed proceedings. These and other remaining difficulties need to be effectively addressed before April in order to build a productive industrial tribunal system.

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