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Questions rise about temps, overwork at Toyota

International Herald Tribune |  By  | September, 10 2008 |  Share  | Source Article

TOYOTA, Japan (AP) - Toyota Motor Corp. has long boasted a stellar reputation for super-efficient production that has become the lore of countless business success books.

But recently, criticism is starting to surface in Japan about the potential social costs of the company's prized - and once virtually never-criticized - labor practices.

Within the past year, the deaths of two Toyota employees were found, under Japanese law, to have been caused by overwork.

Then in June, a downtown stabbing spree by a disgruntled worker at a Toyota subsidiary stunned Japan.

The incident, which left seven dead, prompted further public scrutiny of the country's leading automaker.

Some questioned whether its aggressive cost cuts were putting a stressful squeeze on its employees.

Much of the emerging criticism applies to Japanese companies generally, and Toyota is far from the worst offender.

But Toyota stands out as this nation's model company and has been widely praised for turning worker empowerment into a key driver of sales and profit growth.

Whether these incidents are just bumps in the road or a harbinger of change at the automaker - and Japan overall - remains to be seen.

A book published last year, "The Dark Side of Toyota,'' paints a bleak picture of Toyota workers, deprived of personal time and forced to live up to expectations of dedication and loyalty that journalists Masahiro Watanabe and Masaaki Hayashi compare to brainwashing.

"Workers ... aren't machines. They get sick. And they make mistakes,'' the book reads in part.

"But the Toyota System fails to recognize any of that. It appears to be an extremely rational system. But it is, in fact, totally irrational.''

The National Labor Committee, a New York-based human rights organization that usually focuses on sweatshops in developing countries, weighed in earlier this year with a scathing report on Toyota, including what it said was abuse of temporary workers.

Toyota denied the allegations.

The criticisms, not unique to Toyota, are twofold.

One is the growing use of temporary agency workers, such as the man arrested for the killing rampage in Tokyo in June.

The practice, driven by the pressure to reduce costs amid global competition, is a major break with the tradition of lifetime employment at Japan's major companies.

The "haken,'' which means dispatched in Japanese, generally get lower pay, few benefits and can be laid off at any time.

Unable to afford rent, some sleep in semiprivate booths at Internet cafes.

Many feel like outcasts in Japanese society, because of the pressure to conform and the history of lifetime employment. The other issue is Japan's infamous workaholic culture.

Workers, especially the more competent ones, get leaned on, sometimes to their physical and emotional breaking point.

The worst cases end in "karoshi,'' or death from overwork.

Kenichi Uchino, a 30-year-old Toyota quality control worker, collapsed at the flagship Tsutsumi plant near Toyota headquarters in 2002, dying of heart failure.

His 38-year-old widow, Hiroko Uchino, said her husband frequently worked past midnight.

Typically, after a few hours sleep, he awoke to eat breakfast with his two children before heading back to work, she recalled, adding that she is speaking out in hopes it will bring about change.

"With all the profit Toyota is making, it's not going to go bankrupt if it allows its workers to lead human lives,'' Uchino said in an interview at her home near Toyota city, showing family photographs and the detailed diagrams her husband had drawn for quality control meetings.

"Toyota may be No. 1 in vehicle production and sales, but I don't think it's No. 1 in much else,'' she said.

Speaking out in this way is extremely rare in Japan.

In November, the Nagoya District Court ruled Uchino died of overwork, doing more than 100 hours of overtime a month, much of it unpaid, including so-called voluntary quality control meetings held after regular work hours.

Sudden deaths from brain and heart disorders are classified as karoshi if linked to extremely long hours and on-the-job stress. Any case involving a worker who clocked more than 45 hours of overtime a month is seen as possible karoshi.

Last year, 392 deaths were declared karoshi nationwide, up 10 percent from the previous year, according to the health ministry. Compensation is paid to the surviving family members out of a government-administered pool funded by companies.

Spouses receive about half the worker's annual salary, and more if they have children.

Uchino's widow receives about 4.4 million yen (US$40,000) a year in compensation. Earlier this year, a second Toyota employee, a 45-year-old engineer under pressure in developing a hybrid version of the Camry, was found to have died from overwork in 2006.

The automaker has issued public statements of condolences to the families and promised to improve monitoring workers' health.

Spurred in large part by Uchino's death, Toyota also has begun paying overtime for quality control meetings.

"We must always try to improve the workplace, keeping in mind respect for each and every individual,'' Toyota spokesman Hideaki Homma said.

"The fundamental principle is that we must foremost value an overall sense of trust _ between management and workers as well as among workers.''

Toyota has been praised for decades for perfecting a management philosophy that empowered the factory floor worker and sought to produce close teamwork.

"The Toyota Production System is based upon respect for people and the constant challenge to do better,'' said Bill Schwartz of TBM Consulting Group, a Durham, North Carolina-based company that helps U.S. companies adopt Toyota's production methods.

"Most employees who work in this environment feel 'part of the team' and don't feel forced to work.''

But Mikio Mizuno, a lawyer who has handled karoshi cases, says the deep corporate loyalty Japanese workers feel can lead to emotional stress.

The push for perfection that gave Japanese companies an edge has become even more intense because of global competition, he said, sometimes at a cost to workers.

"When competition builds in a market economy, then demands on a worker become endless, and there's little the individual worker can do to fight back,'' said Mizuno.

Only in recent years has a handful of books criticizing Toyota's overzealous methods started to get published, mostly in Japan.

Overseas, tomes extolling Toyota's methods still far outnumber those denigrating it. As Toyota has grown, quality has suffered, resulting in massive recalls.

Executives, including President Katsuaki Watanabe, repeatedly stress the challenge of maintaining Toyota's production methods amid spectacular global expansion.

It now employs about 12,000 contract and temporary agency workers, about 15 percent of its 80,000-strong work force in Japan. Tomohiro Kato, a 25-year-old temporary agency worker at Toyota subsidiary Kanto Auto Works Ltd., rammed a truck into a crowd in Tokyo's Akihabara district in June and then stabbed passers-by with a combat knife.

After his arrest, his remarks on the Internet about feeling like a second-class citizen as "haken'' were widely publicized.

Japan has long fostered family-like loyalty and pride at companies so one's job takes up a much larger part of a Japanese identity compared to many other nations.

A former temporary worker at another Toyota group company said he identified with Kato's sentiments, because he shares the same fears about being laid off and feeling like a loser.

He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of getting rejected when applying for a full-time job.

Tadao Wakatsuki, a Toyota assembly line worker, is organizing a new union that will include temporary workers.

He believes the existing union is too acquiescent to management.

"What we have is destruction of our employment, destruction of our wages and destruction of our health,'' he said.

"We must protect 'haken' workers if we hope to protect ourselves in the long run.''