Monday, February 15, 2010


Focus on Toyota should include more than gas and brake pedals—the labor policies that power the carmaker need to be recalled

by Larry Geller

Toyota is making headlines for quality issues—recalls of 2.3 million vehicles in the US for gas pedal problems followed by 270,000 of its flagship Prius cars have dealt a blow to the company’s reputation and stock value and depressed sales.

Before the recalls are completed and Toyota fades from the news, the company should be held accountable for its labor practices in manufacturing these cars. If persons of good conscience choose where to shop based on the labor policies of those they would be enriching, why should Toyota not be evaluated as is Walmart?

A string of corrosive labor issues surrounds the world’s largest automaker, although other Japanese auto companies might face similar criticism.

Contemporary with the massive recall, Toyota announced plans to close its unionized assembly plant in Fremont, California. The closing, planned for March, would cost 5,400 direct jobs and up to 50,000 additional jobs among suppliers and related businesses. At the same time, Toyota plans to open up another factory in Mississippi that will be non-union.

Although Japanese automakers have gravitated to the South to avoid unionization, this move, coming at a time of financial crisis in California, is not likely to endear the brand to shoppers in that state.

Nor are the Japanese automaker’s Southern plants, which pay wages comparable to the unionized plant, above criticism. Although there are strong positives expressed in this five-year-old article about a Toyota Kentucky plant, it also notes:

Gary Chaison, who teaches industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts, says Toyota and its peers also try to treat workers well, take their opinions into account and give them a stake in the plant's success.

Despite the wages, some Toyota workers say they need a union. They complain the company drives them so hard that people get injured, and when they can't work anymore, Toyota pays them off to leave

Leonard Habermehl is a skilled repairman and makes up to $85,000 per year. When he came to Toyota in 1990, he didn't see why he needed a union. But after years of service in which he says he has seen people injured and forced out of their jobs, he now believes the plant should unionize. [NPR, Toyota Powers Ahead at Kentucky Plant, 12/20/2005]

Toyota’s labor history in Japan has been in the spotlight for several years, following some well-publicized instances of “karoshi,” or deaths due to overwork, a deadly rampage by a Toyota worker, and two scathingly critical reports.

From a 2008 CNN report on the karoshi deaths of two Toyota employees:

A Japanese labor bureau has ruled that one of Toyota's top car engineers died from working too many hours, the latest in a string of such findings in a nation where extraordinarily long hours for some employees has long been the norm.

The man who died was aged 45 and had been under severe pressure as the lead engineer in developing a hybrid version of Toyota's blockbuster Camry line, said Mikio Mizuno, the lawyer representing his wife. The man's identity is being withheld at the request of his family, who continue to live in Toyota City where the company is based.

In the two months up to his death, the man averaged more than 80 hours of overtime per month, according to Mizuno.

He regularly worked nights and weekends, was frequently sent abroad and was grappling with shipping a model for the pivotal North American International Auto Show in Detroit when he died of ischemic heart disease in January 2006. The man's daughter found his body at their home the day before he was to leave for the United States.

Last year, a court in central Japan ordered the government to pay compensation to Hiroko Uchino, the wife of a Toyota employee who collapsed at work and died at age 30 in 2002. She took the case to court after her application to the local labor bureau for compensation was rejected.

Uchino collapsed on the shop floor of the Tsutsumi plant that assembles the Prius. He died during the 13th hour of his usual 14-hour day. He was mentioned, in a National Labor Committee (NLC) report which exposed Toyota’s labor practices in Japan, as working 85 hour weeks before his death, or 106.5-155 hours of overtime in a month. The NCL published his time cards.

The same year saw the deadly rampage in Tokyo:

Then in June [2008], a downtown Tokyo stabbing spree by a disgruntled worker at a Toyota subsidiary stunned Japan. The vehicle and knife rampage, which left seven dead, prompted further public scrutiny of the leading automaker. Some questioned whether its aggressive cost cuts were putting a stressful squeeze on its employees. [Japan Times, System under stress at Toyota: Criticism is surfacing about the potential social costs of the carmaker's labor practices, 9/13/2008]

The same Japan Times article refers to the first of two critical reports, a book which detailed Toyota’s labor practices:

A book published last year, "The Dark Side of Toyota," paints a bleak picture of Toyota workers who are deprived of personal time and forced to live up to the expectations of dedication and loyalty that journalists Masahiro Watanabe and Masaaki Hayashi compare with 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 most detailed criticism came in the NLC report, however. Again, the Prius is  involved. From an article on the report in In These Times (7/16/2008):

Low-wage temporary workers make up one-third of Toyota’s Prius assembly-line workers, mostly in the auto-parts supply chain. They are signed to contracts for periods as short as four months, and are paid only 60 percent of a full-time employee’s wage.

Parts plants run by subcontractors advertise standard, nine-hour, five-day-a-week jobs. But according to the NLC, “the typical shift was 15 to 16.5 hours a day, from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. or 1:00 a.m.”

Referring to the man who died on the shop floor at the Prius plant:

Much of this overtime went unpaid. (Toyota explained Kenichi’s extra hours as “voluntary quality control activities,” says the report.) But in court, his survivors were able to win pension payments.

Peripherally related were charges that Toyota supported the murderous military regime in Burma:

The NLC also alleges that Toyota — through its subsidiary Toyota Tsusho — has joint business ventures with Burma’s military regime. The charges arise from an agreement between Tsusho, Suzuki and the junta to set up parts and material plants in Burma, and produce vehicles for the military government. These ties remain despite a 2001 declaration from the company that it ended contracts with the Burmese government.

The NLC report is here and Toyota’s response is here.

There’s no doubt that the Prius’ mechanical problems will be fixed, but should we overlook the moral issues that are built into each car Toyota manufactures?

If you won’t shop at Walmart, should you buy a Toyota?



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