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Home » Archives » October 2004 » Toyota Drives Workers to Suicide

Toyota Drives Workers to Suicide

Friday, October 29, 2004 Posted: 10:55 AM JST

Japan Focus carries an eye opening article by Satoshi Kamata, one of Japan's leading investigative journalists, about giant auto maker Toyota. Toyota, the most profitable company in Japan and the fourth in the world, this year became the first Japanese company to pass one trillion yen in profits. Though it sold 1.3 million fewer cars than world-leader General Motors, its profits were twice as high. It achieves this by squeezing every bit of energy out of its employees says Kamata.

Kamata wrote a best-selling book about his experiences as a seasonal laborer at Toyota in the early 1970s. On July 2, 2004 Shukan Kinyobi published a report of a return visit to Toyota's headquarters. The article in Japan Focus is the translation of this article.

The journalist describes how Toyota has been increasing the number of so called "term employees". Temporary workers who are offered a monthly wage of JPY 254,430 (USD 2,300). Thirty years ago the company had a total of 41,000 employees. Even though it has managed to increase profits by thirty times the number of employees has grown just fifty percent to 65,000. The number of term employees however, has grown from 3,000 to about 10,000. These workers are not allowed to work longer than two years and eleven months. Then they are "discarded" as Kamata dramatically calls it.

As elsewhere in Japan, office workers in their fifties are now treated as redundant labor. For jobs such as computer repair, outside contractors who are paid less than half the wages of regular employees are being introduced in large numbers. On the plant floor, there is strong dissatisfaction with a new wage system introduced in April. The new arrangement replaces age-based pay with a system of skill-based pay, with peak rates paid to workers in their thirties and forties, and wage reductions after the age of fifty-one.

"It's worse than a wage freeze. It amounts to a rollback of wages," workers reported, but not without contradictory feelings. "At the same time, we're still paid more than people at other companies. But even so, why is it that only the company makes money?"

If one complains to the leaders of the union local, the threatening response is, "Find me a company that will hire you for the wages you're being paid now." This is one of the fruits of "labor-management harmony," with an assist from the financial instability of nearby Mitsubishi Motors, and the workers of the world's number one corporation simply wither away.

The pressure on employees is enormous. Since the mid 90s there has been a dramatic increase in depression among workers, and there are reported to be suicides from overwork. One report in the labor union newspaper of a November 27, 2003 labor-management council meeting says that "the company sees the high incidence of psychological disease as a grave situation."

Keywords: national_news

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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