Systems for resolving labour conflicts out of court are consolidated

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Since 1998, systems for jointly resolving labour conflicts out of court created by the social partners have progressed greatly in Spain, helping promote a framework of industrial relations founded less on the courts and more on collective autonomy. As well as the SIMA national joint dispute-resolution body, by autumn 1999, all but one of Spain's 17 autonomous communities had their own regional body.

In 1996 the social partners signed the "Agreement on resolving labour conflicts out of court" (Acuerdo sobre Solución Extrajudicial de Conflictos Laborales, ASEC) (ES9705107F) The aim was to create a way of resolving conflicts at sector or company level, when they affect more than one region (autonomous community) of Spain, without the involvement of the courts and the public administration. To this end, the ASEC provided for the creation of a joint autonomous body for resolving labour conflicts, the Intersectoral Mediation and Arbitration Service (Servicio Interconfederal de Mediación y Arbitraje, SIMA), which came into operation in 1998 (ES9809181F).

The signing of the ASEC was also a stimulus for the signing of agreements to set up joint bodies for solving labour conflicts at the level of the autonomous communities, which are largely based on the pattern of the national agreement. Agreements have subsequently been signed in 10 autonomous communities. To this figure can be added those communities that already had a joint body of this type - both those that had been pioneers in this field (the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia) and those that had adopted the system more recently (Madrid, the Canary Islands and Rioja). In total, therefore, 16 autonomous communities have this type of joint dispute-resolution system or are in the process of setting it up: Asturias is the only exception

First results of the regional system

In 1997, the autonomous dispute-resolution bodies of only five autonomous communities were fully operational during the whole year: the Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia, Madrid and Navarre. In 1998, another six were added: the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, Cantabria, Castilla-la Mancha, Rioja and Valencia.

Although in many cases these bodies have been set up recently, they already channel a large number of conflicts. In 1998, a total of 946 collective conflicts underwent the procedures of conciliation, mediation and arbitration provided for in the relevant agreements. These conflicts affected 20,000 companies and around 340,000 workers. The procedures most used were conciliation and mediation, whereas arbitration was less used (57 cases) due to the lack of tradition of such an approach.

In this short space of time, the amount of collective conflicts channelled through this system has reached a similar level to that processed by the administrative mediation and conciliation bodies. Furthermore, the effectiveness of the new channnels is far greater: around 40% of the collective conciliation and mediation procedures ended with an agreement between the parties, whereas only 10% of collective conciliation procedures through administrative channels end in agreement.

Individual conflicts, however, are still channelled mostly through other systems and legal action is still predominant in this area. This is partly due to the configuration of the new autonomous bodies: not all deal with individual conflicts and when they do, they usually exclude important matters such as dismissals or wage claims above a certain amount.

First year of operation of SIMA

At the end of 1998 a total of 65 sectors were members of the new SIMA service, employing just over 5 million workers. Most of the important sectors are members - including construction, metalworking, hotels and catering, textiles, transport, chemicals, wood, department stores and graphic arts - although there are still some significant absences such as the banking sector.

In the first year of operation, 49 conflicts were dealt with by SIMA (eight at sector level and the rest at company level). Most of them (47) involved mediation and they affected a total of 311,000 workers and 2,307 companies. The ASEC establishes mediation as obligatory, when one of the parties requests it, before legal proceedings involving collective conflict are taken to the labour courts, or as an attempted solution prior to calling a strike. The effectiveness of this procedure has also been relatively high: a third of the mediation processes that followed the full procedure ended in agreement.

SIMA has intervened mainly in conflicts over the interpretation or application of collective agreements or company decisions, and has not been involved in many conflicts of regulations or of interests. This is understandable in a system that is just beginning to operate, because it is simpler to replace the judicial system in the area of interpretation than in other areas. In the future, SIMA's sphere of action is expected to be widened.


The joint dispute-resolution organisations of employers and trade unions coexist with other institutions devoted to solving labour conflicts, both in the public administration and in the social jurisdiction. The objective of these organisations is to promote a way of resolving conflicts outside the courts and outside administrative procedures, which is directly managed by the social partners. Since 1998, these joint organisations have progressed rapidly, and everything indicates that they will continue to grow and diversify their action into all areas of collective conflict in the next few years. However, it seems that individual conflicts will continue to be channelled through other systems for the moment (María Caprile, CIREM Foundation).

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