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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Toyota, cette machine qui brise les hommes

by Alexandra Chaignon

Toyota, the man-breaking machine.

Translated Thursday 17 April 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

On-the-job suffering. Toyota, the world’s number one auto maker, is known for its performance and profitability. But the redoubtably efficient Toyota system runs on workers. Workers who suffer. Here’s a reportage from the Onnaing plant near Valenciennes, 125 miles north of Paris.

Valenciennes, from our special correspondent.

Their names are Damien, Guy, Regis, David, Jean-Christophe, Ingrid and Eric. They’re between 23 and 40 years old. And all of them literally “hurt” at work. Like Nicolas, 23, who already has a racked-up back and gets shots every week to get relief from the pains in his hands. As for Romain, at 25 he suffers from continual sharp pains in his neck bones. Anthony, 23, is beginning to get back-aches. Christelle, 40, has serious back pains, not to mention chronic depression. Bruno, around 30, has two slipped discs, just like Michel. Dimitri, for his part, has to live with sharp lower back pains, degenerative osteo-arthritis in his neck, and pains in his joints. Finally there’s Fred, whose hand got crushed and who suffers from severe after-effects. What they all have in common is that they are employed as factory workers at the Onnaing factory belonging to Toyota Motor Manufacturing France (TMMF), near Valenciennes. Or more precisely, they are “Toyota members,” because at Toyota, they’re all one big happy family.

“The first two weeks after you’re hired, they train you. It’s great – you feel like you’re in an ideal world. They repeat that we’re all part of the same big family, that everyone backs up everybody else,” Pascal reminisced. He was hired in 2001. “But you soon figure out that it’s just a bunch of eyewash.” These blandishments are typical of “Toyota-ism” (See article opposite). Real-time production requires that factory hands demonstrate a lot of flexibility, which takes the form of infernal work paces, no-holds-barred competition among workmates, pressure, anti-union discrimination, etc.

The Toyota method was already tested in the 1970s, and it hasn’t aged a bit. Indeed, in 1972, Satoshi Kamata, a Japanese journalist, temped at the Toyota factory in Nagoya, Japan, for six months. In Tokyo the following year, he published “The Factory of Despair” in which he described daily life on the assembly line: fatigue, stress, job-related illnesses, accidents ... were the daily fare of Japanese workers. In France today, it’s still the same ritual. “What’s written in the book is exactly what we experience at Toyota in Valenciennes, in 2008,” said Jean-Christophe, who has worked for Toyota since 2001.

“They do everything they can to keep us from talking to each other. Company policy is to change the ‘group leaders’ every six months so that they don’t form any affinities. As for us, we too can be transferred to another job station from one day to the next, since we’re supposed to know all the jobs in a workshop,” said Salvatore, a production worker in logistics. Added to this policy of isolating workers is the lack of recognition. “We don’t have any job title. You can work as a forklift driver or run a machine, it doesn’t make any difference, you’re not recognized as such. And that way they can pay us at the base rate,” added Anthony, who has been working in the metal stamping workshop since 2005.

Wages hover around 1100 to 1300 euros a month, depending on bonuses. There’s no “thirteenth month,” just barely an annual profit-sharing bonus, which is the object of continual pressure. "The moment you dare stop the line, the group leader tells you you’re endangering your workmates’ bonus,” said Fred disgustedly. “When you stop the line, they bawl you out and you have to justify it. In any case, it’s always our fault,” said an angry Ingrid, 34, a production worker in the assembly shop for the past five years. She went on, exasperated: “If you want to go to the toilet, it’s hell to find someone to take your place. They let you know that you’re expected to make your bodily needs match break time."

“You’ve always got to go faster, better, and in as little time as possible,” said Fred. In Onnaing, there’s a continual race to churn out more. When the factory opened in 2001, it turned out a car every 108 seconds. Today the rate is one every 60 seconds. A typical anecdote: “In March, 2007, the assembly line was running at 60 seconds. To avoid producing too much, they slowed us down to 64 seconds, and cut three jobs. Since then, we’ve gone backto 60 seconds – but with the same number of workers,” said Eric, who has worked to Toyota for seven years.

It’s just a short step from pressure to blackmail, and it’s a step that Toyota easily takes. “If you’re unlucky enough to suffer an on-the-job accident, the foreman will try to dissuade you from declaring it by explaining that you’re going to lose your prime, and even more perversely, that your buddies are going to lose theirs, too. They accompany you to the first aid station, to make sure that you don’t talk to anyone and to try and persuade you,” said David.

Sciatica, a crushed hand, a slipped disc... At Toyota, there are loads of on-the-job accidents. It’s what’s to be expected with the work rates. But what isn’t normal is that not all accidents are declared. According to Eric Pecquer, CGT shop steward at the factory and a member of the work conditions, safety and hygiene committee, “there are four to five undeclared accidents every month.” “We see workers come to work still in a plaster cast or neck brace. They aren’t on the lines, but they have them passing parts to their workmates. They make them understand that it’s better for them to be at work.”

“They do everything to guilt-trip the worker,” is the way Régis, who was hired in 2003, summed up the situation. “When you come back from an on-the-job accident, they ask you to find a solution to prevent it from happening again. As if it was your fault...” It’s the same scenario when a worker falls sick. He is seriously encouraged to take holiday time or RTT time [1] instead of sick leave. “According to the union contract, the first three days of sick leave are paid for by the employer. That’s why they put pressure on us. They don’t forget to remind you that if you’re sick more than five days a year, your bonus is going to suffer,” said Régis. “With them, you feel you’re doing something wrong if you get sick.” He doesn’t hesitate to call it harassment. “When my back was stuck, my doctor ordered a week’s rest. My foreman called me a dozen times a day to convince me to come back to work all the same, promising me an easy job station and cash for medical care.” The promises made by the president of the Toyota group when he opened the factory – he stated that “safety and working conditions (would always be) a top priority” – have been forgotten and have disappeared like smoke in the wind.

But, while the “Toyotamen” are physically broken, their morale is also worn down. This is not without consequences for their personal life. “I’d like to go out on the weekend, but I haven’t got the strength. I can’t even play soccer for 20 minutes with my children,” Régis admitted. “I’m only 34 and I’m already broken down. What sort of image do my children have of their father?” Guy, 41 and a Toyota worker for five years, has seen his relationship with his partner crumble after 17 years together. He said it’s partly due to his job. “There are times when you can’t think of anything except Toyota.” It’s no exaggeration to say that depression is widespread among the workers. “Sometimes I blubber on the assembly line, because I ache all over and my morale is down to zero,” admitted Ingrid. “You’ve got to be very strong mentally to hang in there,” Régis admitted. “But you hang on for the children, because you have a house to pay for, a car loan to pay off.”

In these conditions, it’s no surprise that turnover is high. “Since 2001, half of the staff (numbering 4000 workers, 3000 of whom have permanent contracts) have been renewed,” the union member said. Every month there’s a batch of resignations and layoffs. In the first two months of 2008, there were 25 layoffs and 16 resignations. Even the temporary workers snap. “Some of them don’t even last a day. They split at the break,” said Régis. “The guys are demotivated. In my team, three guys refused to sign for a permanent contract. They do their 18 months to get the bonus and prefer to stop, even if it means going back on unemployment,” said Jean-Christophe, an elected member of the works council.

In a region like Valenciennes, where the unemployment rate remains high, Toyota has benefited from a cheap and renewable labor supply. But after seven years, the supply is drying up. “If you find more women among the temporary workers, it’s because the men don’t want to work for Toyota any more. And the men who do work here come from farther and farther away,” Jean-Christophe said.

In the face of this pressure and the continual work pace, joining a trade union appears, for a growing number of Toyota workers, as the last dike. Although it is not the biggest union at the factory, the CGT trade union’s membership has tripled since September, 2007. “Working conditions have been getting progressively worse. In an economic situation where purchasing power is falling, it hits home all the more,” said Eric Pecqueur, aware that when workers decide to join the union, they “take a risk.” Anti-union discrimination is not an empty phrase here. “For months, I didn’t make my joining the CGT generally known,” said Dimitri, who has worked at the factory since 2001. “When I did, my manager called me in and asked me why I had joined the union, and especially why I had chosen the CGT. He gave me to understand that it wasn’t a good for my career to be labeled ‘CGT’. Today, I don’t give a damn. I’ve got seven years’ seniority and my working conditions are getting worse from day to day. I don’t want to shut down Toyota. I just want better working conditions. I don’t want to end up in a wheelchair.”

“Scientifically organized under-staffing, speed-up, pressure to switch sick leave into holiday time, and a permanent state of depression. All that is the result of a policy in which the adjustment variable is not stocks, but human beings,” said Eric Pecqueur. This year, when we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of the May 1968 movement, the slogan “I participate, you participate, they profit” hasn’t aged a bit. At Toyota, unfortunately, it is more than ever the situation.

[1RTT time is time that workers accumulate when they work a 40-hour week in France, where the legal work week is 35 hours. The extra hours are accumulated and the worker recuperates them in the form of days off from work.

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