In 2006, six Toyota veterans presented a memo to the company’s management that addressed the company’s escalating recall numbers – at the time over 5 million – and how this rate (36% of vehicles sold) was higher than the company’s competitors. The veterans came to notice that the company had been making “dangerous safety and manpower shortcuts to lower costs and boost production” due to overseas demand for more compact fuel-efficient vehicles. They warned that if Toyota failed to act, the company’s survival would be questionable. This memo went unnoticed, uncommented on, and was, in the end, entirely disregarded by Toyota’s upper management. They never responded.
What this reveals, in addition to an entire history of unaddressed warnings, is that Toyota, in the name of competition, put the lives of its workers and the lives of its consumers at risk. In 2008, a 65 page report was released by human-rights advocacy group the National Labor Committee that detailed “what it alleged were serious human-rights violations.” In the report, Toyota was linked to the human trafficking of foreign workers from China and Vietnam who were delivered to its Japanese factories. Workers would then be strong-armed into working overtime without compensation. The report also alleged that there were serious indications that a similar trend was emerging in the U.S.
The six veterans, all founding members of the All Toyota Labor Union, addressed company problems in their 2006 memo, but also provided a detailed proposal for a solution. Tadao Wakatsuki, one of the founders of the ATLU, noted that people were overworked and some were committing suicide. People would be pressured to work overtime without pay. The work environment was damaging and killing the company’s employees.
Hiroko Uchino believes the workplace killed her husband, who, in 2002, dropped dead at his desk from heart failure at 4:30 in the morning. He was 30. He had finished his assembly line shift hours earlier, but was required to complete his paperwork on his own time. His widow noted that he regularly worked 14 hour days, having worked 144 hours of unpaid overtime during his final month at Toyota – hours that were considered “service to the company.” In 2007, a Japanese court found that Hiroko’s husband had literally overworked himself to the point of death.
What is most troubling about Toyota’s past is that, despite the fact that its own employees found the need to blow the whistle years before this present recall and investigation, the company’s management virtually ignored all the positive, proposed solutions presented by its workers – solutions that could have potentially saved what its employees accurately deemed was, and is, a company in dire trouble.