Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Focus on Labour Law: Mediation Hearings

In Oman, as in other jurisdictions, labour disputes are a common occurrence. A key, but often overlooked, part of any labour dispute is the mediation process.

Under Omani law, labour disputes are first referred to mediation with a mediator from the Ministry of Manpower. The dispute may proceed only to the court system once the mediator takes the view that irreconcilable differences exist between the employer and the employee.

The mediator’s role is to facilitate discussion and negotiation between the employer and the employee. He or she may encourage the parties to try to resolve their differences and may even express views regarding who is in the right and who is in the wrong. The mediator has no power to force a party to change its position or to bind the parties to a resolution of the dispute. However, it is important to bear in mind that the mediator wields influence by means of its reporting role. At the end of the mediation process, the mediator writes a private report to the Primary Court explaining what the dispute is about and what both parties' respective positions are, and may state who the mediator feels is the culpable party.

Accordingly, any company involved in a labour dispute would be well advised to take the mediation process seriously and to come to the mediation sessions well prepared, even if the company is convinced that mediation will not resolve the dispute. Ideally, both an HR staff member and a lawyer should be present to represent the company at the mediation sessions. Before the first session, the company should collate all paperwork relating to the employee and the dispute so that the company’s HR staff member and the lawyer can carefully analyze these materials, discuss the case in depth, and formulate their strategy for the mediation hearings.

Another reason for companies to approach the mediation process seriously and preparedly is that while the mediation will not necessarily be dispositive of the suit, it may raise information and lines of argument and defense that can carry through to and ultimately affect any subsequent court proceedings.

For example, one difficulty a company may have to contend with is when the employee fails to properly articulate his claim during the mediation process. In this event, the company generally should refrain from offering a detailed defense to the employee’s anticipated claim. Such a course of action may commit the company to a fact pattern or line of defense it may wish to avoid during any subsequent court proceedings. In other words, at the mediation stage, the company generally should respond only to the information presented by the employee and the mediator, and not go into further detail than necessary. The general principle to bear in mind is that a court will look unfavorably upon, and will be much more likely to find against, an employer that has set forth inconsistent information and defense arguments during the court proceedings compared with during the mediation process.

In sum, the mediation process in a labour dispute is an important step that a company must handle attentively and skillfully in order to best protect its interests. Companies involved in a labour dispute would be well advised to consult with a lawyer to help them navigate this process.