June, 09 2008 |  Download PDF |  Share

The Toyota You Don't Know

The Race to the Bottom in the Auto Industry

Toyota's Response to the Report (July 8, 2008)



The American and Japanese people have a lot in common.  In both countries, excessive corporate power and greed are destroying the middle class as income disparity soars, enriching the few while the vast majority of us are left behind.  As the two largest economies in the world, the people of the U.S. and Japan should, and could, have a very powerful voice in helping to shape a global economy that fosters respect for human and worker rights, protects our environment and promotes social and economic equality.  There needs to be more dialogue among labor, environmental, human and women's rights organizations and students in the U.S. and Japan.  If corporations are the only ones talking to one another, we will just get more of the same.

In the U.S., we produce too many gas guzzlers.  But they are made by well-paid, middle class union workers who have a democratic voice on the shop floor.  In Japan, companies like Toyota make some of the best hybrids.  But their unions are weak and lack independence—allowing the widespread exploitation of cheap temporary workers in their plants, along with a parts supply chain that is riddled with sweatshop abuses, including human trafficking.  We have a lot to learn from each other.

Right now, Toyota and the U.S. auto companies are locked in a race to the bottom, which will inevitably lead them to adopt each others worst practices.

If the middle class is going to survive, it is time for working people in the U.S. and Japan to begin speaking to one another.  



Executive Summary

Celebrities like Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio and others have helped turn Toyota's Prius into the environmental "equivalent of those popular rubber issue bracelets in yellow and other colors—it shows the world its owners care." In fact, 57 percent of Americans who purchased a Prius said they did so because "it makes a statement about me."  Toyota's Prius, the best-selling hybrid in the world does get 48 miles to the gallon.  (New York Times, July 4, 2007)

But what do these celebrities and the rest of us know about the labor practices and working conditions under which the Prius and other Toyota cars are made in Japan?  Really nothing.  Why is the commitment to protect our environment so often divorced from a similar concern to protect human and worker rights?

  • Low wage temps:  a full one-third, or 10,000 Toyota assembly line workers, are low wage temp and subcontract workers who earn less than 60 percent of what full time workers do.  Temps have few rights and are hired under contracts as short as four months.
  • Overworked to death:  Mr Kenichi Uchino died of overwork at Toyota's Prius plant when he was just 30.  He was routinely working 14-hour shifts and putting in anywhere from 107 to 155 hours of overtime a month—at least 61 ½ hours of which were unpaid.  Toyota said the hours were "voluntary" and therefore not paid.  Mr. Uchino left behind his young wife, a one-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter.  The Japanese people even have a word for being overworked to death:  "karoshi." An estimated 200 to 300 workers a year suffer serious illness, depression and death due to overwork.
  • Sweatshops and human trafficking:  Toyota's parts supply chain is riddled with sweatshop abuse, including the human trafficking of tens of thousands of foreign guest workers—mostly from China and Vietnam—to Japan, where they are stripped of their passports and forced to work grueling hours seven days a week, often earning less than half the legal minimum wage.  Sixteen-hour shifts, from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight are common.
  • Linked to Burmese Dictators:  Toyota—through the Toyota Tsusho Corporation which is part of the Toyota Group—is involved in several joint business ventures with the ruthless military dictators of Burma, which put revenues into the pockets of the dictators who use it to repress Burma's 50 million people.
  • Toyota criticized by the ILO:  The UN/International Labor Organization points to Toyota's suppression of freedom of association at its plant in the Philippines as "an illustration of how a multinational company, apparently with little regard for corporate responsibility, has done everything in its power to prevent recognition and certification of the Toyota Motor Company Workers Association." (ILO Working Group, December 2003.)
  • Toyota leads the Race to the Bottom:  Toyota, now the largest auto company in the world, is using its size and success to impose its two-tier, low-wage model at its non-union plants across America, which will result in a race to the bottom with wages and benefits being slashed throughout the entire auto industry.


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