Labor and Employment Secretary Patricia A. Sto. Tomas has emphasized the need for labor and management to consider alternative modes of dispute settlement including voluntary arbitration to ease the inflow of cases going to compulsory arbitration.

At a meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines last week, Sto. Tomas revealed that there has been a preference for compulsory arbitration resulting in the clogging of cases at the country’s primary labor arbitration arm, the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC).

According to her, the NLRC handled 52,833 arbitration cases in 2003 even as the commission’s labor arbiters number only about 250. This indicates a high dispute-to-labor arbiter ratio at 211 cases per arbiter. Of the cases, the NLRC settled 13,866, dismissed 7,082, and decided on 12,076.

The rest of the cases, which could add up to about 20,000 a year, end up clogging the NLRC’s dockets, to be carried over for resolution in succeeding years, Sto. Tomas said.

The use of voluntary arbitration, on the other hand, has been limited. According to Sto. Tomas, only 1,026 voluntary arbitration cases were facilitated or monitored from 2001 to 2003 out of which 564 or 55 percent of the cases were disposed.

During the first seven months of 2004, voluntary arbitration cases totaled 213 out of which 73 were disposed, 71 resolved through decisions, one settled, one withdrawn, and 140 remained pending.

The figures posed a challenge in improving labor governance and dispute settlement, Sto. Tomas said adding that the DOLE and the NLRC have taken steps to improve alternative dispute resolution and ease the inflow of cases going to compulsory arbitration.

The labor and employment secretary said that alternative dispute resolution is less costly and more expeditious whereas compulsory arbitration has proven to be adversarial, expensive and susceptible to delays.

According to her, the NLRC established Conciliation and Mediation Centers (CMCs) in 2004 to identify and recommend cases for conciliation and mediation. Of the 215 cases referred to mediation, 202 were settled amicably for a 94 percent success rate.

The DOLE, on the other hand, issued guidelines in the implementation of a compressed work week scheme to promote more flexibility in working hours through arrangements voluntarily entered into between workers and employers. The objective is to encourage parties to engage in more bilateral regulation while promoting business competitiveness and the need to harmonize the workers’ work and family responsibilities, Sto. Tomas said

She added that a DOLE order on the implementation of the labor standards enforcement framework also encourages unionized firms and those that have 200 or more workers to engage in self-assessment regarding compliance with basic labor standards. The adoption of self-policing mechanisms under this framework urges parties to settle their differences amicably, thus, preventing the occurrence of plant level disputes, Sto. Tomas said.

Meantime, conciliation and mediation of industrial disputes by the DOLE and its National Conciliation and Mediation Board (NCMB) have posted remarkable achievement as strikes and lockout incidence continue to decline.

“Last year, we only had 25 strikes which is 34 percent lower than the 38 cases declared in 2003,” Sto. Tomas said adding “so far this year, we have been strike-free.” The figures indicate improvement in conciliation and mediation geared at preventing strikes and lockouts, she said.

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