The Dark Side of the Toyota Prius

Paul Abowd July 16, 2008

A new report alleges that Toyota, the world's largest auto company, is violating workers' rights at Prius hybrid plants in Japan.

The Nation­al Labor Com­mit­tee (NLC), a New York-based human rights group, has been inves­ti­gat­ing work­ing con­di­tions at Toy­ota Motor Corp., and the labor used to pro­duce its best-sell­ing Prius hybrid cars.

In its 65-page report released in June, NLC includes first-hand tes­ti­mo­ny of fac­to­ry con­di­tions in Toy­ota City,” out­side of Nagoya, Japan – less than 200 miles south­west of Tokyo – where the largest auto com­pa­ny in the world employs some 70,000 people.

The report alleges that Toy­ota exploits guest work­ers, most­ly shipped in from Chi­na and Viet­nam. Accord­ing to the NLC, these work­ers are stripped of their pass­ports and often forced to work – includ­ing at sub­con­tract plants sup­ply­ing Toy­ota – 16 hours a day, sev­en days a week, while being paid less than half the legal min­i­mum wage.” Work­ers are forced to live in com­pa­ny dor­mi­to­ries and deport­ed for com­plain­ing about poor treat­ment, the report finds.

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.”

In 2002, Kenichi Uchi­no, 30, died while work­ing at the green” Tsut­su­mi plant that assem­bles the Prius. Dur­ing the 13th hour of a rou­tine 14-hour day, Uchi­no col­lapsed on the shop floor of the inter­na­tion­al­ly laud­ed sus­tain­able” fac­to­ry, which uses sul­fur-oxide-eat­ing paint and boasts 5 per­cent emis­sions reduc­tions. A Japan­ese court ruled that Uchino’s death was caused by exhaus­tion from overwork.

His wife, Hiroko Uchi­no, described a gru­el­ing lifestyle that includ­ed an 85-hour work­week pri­or to his death. The NLC pub­lished his time cards, which reveal that he was putting in 106.5 to 155 hours of over­time … in the 30 days lead­ing up to his death.” 

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.

The NLC also alleges that Toy­ota – through its sub­sidiary Toy­ota Tsusho – has joint busi­ness ven­tures with Burma’s mil­i­tary régime. 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.

In the wake of the report, the com­pa­ny wrote a let­ter to stock­hold­ers: Toy­ota has care­ful­ly con­sid­ered the cur­rent envi­ron­ment in Bur­ma, has con­veyed to Toy­ota Tsusho Cor­po­ra­tion its con­cerns about that envi­ron­ment, and has asked Toy­ota Tsusho to recon­sid­er its busi­ness activ­i­ties in the coun­try.” As the largest own­er of Tsusho’s stock (more than a third), Toy­ota itself has a role to play in cut­ting these ties. 

The NLC report also con­nects the company’s over­seas mis­deeds to the Amer­i­can econ­o­my. Mil­lions of dol­lars in car parts shipped by Toy­ota Tsusho are received by Tsusho Amer­i­ca, which dis­trib­utes them to Toy­ota assem­bly plants in the Amer­i­can South. This influx of for­eign auto infra­struc­ture uses an over­whelm­ing ratio of non-union labor, fuel­ing the diminu­tion of union den­si­ty in the auto sector. 

What’s more, a memo leaked from Toyota’s George­town, Ky., plant to the New York Times in late 2007, exposed management’s plans to cut $300 mil­lion in labor costs across Toyota’s North Amer­i­can oper­a­tions over the next three years.” To do this, Toy­ota plans to intro­duce tiered wage scales and reduced health ben­e­fits for U.S. Toy­ota work­ers, which should come as lit­tle sur­prise to an Amer­i­can auto work­force that has suf­fered sim­i­lar attacks from Detroit’s Big Three man­u­fac­tur­ers for the past three decades.

As NLC Direc­tor Charles Ker­naghan says, if Hol­ly­wood celebri­ties – such as actors Leonar­do DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz – can pop­u­lar­ize green dri­ving, they can also help end Toyota’s sweat­shop labor régime and its ties to Burma’s dictatorship. 

Says Ker­naghan: We hope that these same celebri­ties will now also chal­lenge Toy­ota to improve its respect for human and work­er rights.”

Paul Abowd lives in Detroit, where he writes for Crit­i­cal Moment mag­a­zine. His work has also appeared in Labor Notes, Z Mag­a­zine, Month­ly Review, Truthout, Coun­ter­punch and The Elec­tron­ic Intifa­da.
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