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Toyota workers outlined safety concerns in ignored 2006 memo

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Toyota workers outlined safety concerns in ignored 2006 memo

03/08/2010, 4:04 AMBY MARK KLEIS

A new report from Toyota City, Japan, claims that a band of six concerned Toyota workers attempted to warn the automaker of impending quality and safety concerns back in 2006. The report says that Toyota never acknowledged the memo in 2006, and when recently questioned Toyota would not confirm whether or not they received the memo.

According to an investigative report by the LA Times carried out in Toyota’s hometown of Toyota, Japan, six workers came together in 2006 in an attempt to warn the now ailing automaker of impending safety and quality concerns.

The six men – all union workers in Japan – had come together and agreed that the automaker [Toyota] had turned to extensive use of unpaid overtime and cuts in workforce while simultaneously increasing output in order to keep up with increased demand in the U.S. market. One statistic the workers listed in their memo was Toyota’s 5 million recalled vehicles between 2000 and 2005 – totaling 36% of everything sold during that same period – a rate higher than other automakers.

The men explained to the LA Times that the two-page memo warned Toyota that a failure to act could eventually “become a great problem that involves the company’s survival. We are concerned about the processes which are essential for producing safe cars, but that ultimately may be ignored, with production continued in the name of competition.”

Despite their best efforts, the men say Toyota never even acknowledged receipt of the memo, “They completely ignored us. That’s the Toyota way,” said Tadao Wakatsuki, veteran assembly line worker, age 62.

Toyota’s recent statements seem to be in line with the memo

Recent comments by several Toyota executives during Congressional hearings, including CEO Akio Toyoda, have suggested that Toyota has realized it lost its focus on safety and quality, and instead put too much focus on volume. This paradigm shift is what the six workers say they were trying to point out back in 2006, in addition to knowledge of harsh work conditions that were believed to have led workers to commit suicide, suffer work related illness and even death.

“Our responsibility as a labor union was to point out these problems that Toyota should have known about. People were overworked; some were committing suicide,” Wakatsuki said. “Of course, Toyota did nothing, but looking back we see how important this was. We just told them what we saw.”

“We used to test every one of our cars for safety and quality,” said Wakatsuki. “Now we do maybe 60 percent. The old 100 percent is a thing of the past.”

Wakatsuki formed a labor union in 2006 that not only recognized full-time workers, but also part-time and imported workers. A chief concern was the allegedly regular corporate policy that called on extensive unpaid overtime hours by many workers.

In one case, a Japanese court ruled that a man died from karoshi, which means he worked himself to death. The man, Kenichi Uchino, was 30 years old and reportedly worked 14 hours a day leading up to his final month in which he worked 144 hours of unpaid overtime, according to his widowed wife. Uchino died of heart failure while working at his desk.

Uchino’s widow managed to sneak into a Toyota stockholder’s meeting where she questioned then-president Katsuaki Watanabe about unpaid overtime – Watanabe gave no answer and said they would “look into it.”

In 1970, a man by the name of Fumio Matsuda formed the Japan Automobile Consumer Union, an organization which acted as a consumer advocacy group. Matsuda is often referred to as the “Ralph Nader of Japan” for his actions. Matsuda is a former Nissan quality control engineer and says he has spent decades watching Japanese automakers – including Toyota.

Matsuda claimed that Toyota often sponsored “secret recalls” in which Toyota would ask customers to visit dealers for checkups and then they would replace known defective parts and then chargecustomers for the repairs. “Everything Toyota does is hidden, ” said Matsuda.



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