On May 29 the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) issued a report on the state of operation of individual labour dispute settlement systems in Japan in 2011. According to the report, the total number of accesses to overall labour consultation services amounted to 1,109,454 cases, a 1.8% decrease from the previous year. The total number of accesses to labour consultation services provided by civil individual labour dispute systems was 256,343 cases, a 3.8% increase over the previous year.
Although the total number of accesses to overall labour consultation services decreased in 2011 compared to the previous year, it remained at a high level of more than one million cases for the fourth consecutive year. Moreover, the number of applications for counseling, advice, and guidance related to civil individual labour disputes reached a record high. The content of disputes has diversified too. As well as dismissals and nonpayment of wages, there was an increase in the number of alleged cases of bullying and harassment.
Among the disputes, 9,325 cases were dealt with by prefectural labour bureaus or prefectural labour standards inspection offices in the form of advice or guidance. The number of disputes that went through the procedure of mediation by a dispute coordination committee (consisting of three experts) set up in a prefectural labour bureau was 6,362 cases, of which 2,437 cases were settled by agreement. Most of the cases that were not settled by mediation (3,550 cases, or 55.8%) failed to do so because one of the parties concerned in the dispute did not participate in the procedure. The mediation procedure by a dispute coordination committee is easily accessible and does not require much time or cost, but it does not have the power to force the parties to participate.
In order to respond to the increasing number of individual labour disputes, a variety of systems have been developed to settle them. They include (1) enforcement of the dispute settlement system of prefectural labour bureaus so as to prevent individual labour disputes beforehand and, when they occur, to settle them peacefully and swiftly (October 2001); (2) introduction of an individual labour dispute settlement system in prefectural labour relations commissions (each comprising representatives of labour, employers, and the public interest), which were originally set up as a mechanism to settle collective labour disputes; and (3) enforcement of the labour tribunal system, by which one professional judge and two experts each from labour and management deliberate each case with the aim of achieving early conciliation and settlement (April 2006).
In the mediation procedure through administrative bodies or labour relations commissions, a large number of cases are not settled because of the absence of one of the parties in the procedure. In the case of the labour tribunal procedure, however, a fine can be imposed, and the procedure is carried forward even when one of the parties does not participate. The labour tribunal therefore reaches some kind of decision. If there is no objection to this decision, it becomes effective. If there is an objection, the case is transferred to court. When there is some possibility of conciliation before the tribunal reaches a decision, mediation takes place. The labour tribunal decision has the same effect as conciliation in lawsuit litigation.
The nationwide number of cases accepted by the labour tribunal system was 1,163 in 2006, when the system started, and it increased year by year to 1,563 in 2007, 2,417 in 2008, and 3,468 in 2009. The majority of disputes involve cases of dismissal, nonpayment of wages, and nonpayment of severance allowances.
In 2010 labour tribunal cases numbered 3,375, of which 2,433 cases (72.1%) were settled by mediation (conciliation) and 614 cases were decided by the tribunal. The number of cases transferred to court is unknown, but according to court websites, about 80% of cases were settled either by mediation or by labour tribunal decision without objection.
In its "Demands and Proposals for Policies and Systems," RENGO (Japanese Trade Union Confederation) demands the improvement of dispute settlement methods so as to settle labour disputes speedily and properly. RENGO proposes that, as well as improving operation of the labour tribunal system, it is necessary to make more positive use of labour relations commissions. RENGO also believes that, while reviewing the full picture of labour dispute settlement systems, it is necessary to strengthen cooperation among them. RENGO will take up these proposals at regular consultation meetings with the government and policy consultation meetings with ministries and agencies in order to encourage the realization of its demands.