TOKYO (Reuters) - When Kenichi Uchino collapsed and died on the factory floor before dawn one February day in 2002, he was into his fourth hour of overtime.
In his final month at the Toyota car plant, he had logged more than 106 hours overtime, most of it unpaid. He died from sudden heart failure at just 30 years old.
A district court ruled last week that Uchino had literally worked himself to death. It was a hard-fought victory for his widow, Hiroko, after almost six years of legal battles while holding down her own job and raising two young children.
But the issue of ‘karoshi’, a household Japanese term meaning ‘death from overwork’ is underplayed in Japan, she says. Workers are too often expected to sacrifice their personal lives and happiness for the company’s benefit.
“There are loads of people out there suffering from this established practice of ‘voluntary overtime’,” Uchino told reporters on Wednesday at the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Her children are now seven and nine.
“Until now, all this unpaid work has contributed to Toyota’s 2 trillion yen ($18 billion) profit. As Toyota continues to grow, I hope it will return some of it to its workers. That would make it a true global leader,” she said.
Toyota is on its way to overtaking General Motors as the world’s biggest automaker. Much of its growth has been due to expanded production in Japan, and the company has repeatedly lamented a shortage of engineers and skilled workers.
Overworking is a serious problem in Japan, where workers are often judged on their dedication and labor unions typically toe the company line. An average worker uses less than half of the paid holidays available, government data show.
While Toyota is not alone in its work practices, Hiroko Uchino criticized it for being unsupportive during her legal battle with the Labour Standards Inspection Office, a local branch of the Labour Ministry. And the auto giant, she said, had done little when her husband sought help to lessen his workload during his final months.
“My husband was in a quality control team with many elderly workers who had been rehired due to the labor shortage, and he ended up doing the most work,” she said.
“The only thing that kept him going was the prospect of getting someone younger when one of his teammates was due to retire for good, but instead the replacement was an inexperienced temporary worker, and that broke him psychologically.”
Asked not to take time off by his superior, her husband had spent more time at work training the temp.
In his final week, Kenichi Uchino was on the second shift at the Tsusumi factory, which builds the popular Prius hybrid model. While due to finish work at 1 a.m., his heavy workload meant he would reach home after 6 a.m., his widow said. He would be too exhausted to finish his breakfast or play with the kids.
“He smiled a lot less, and said he was happiest when he was sleeping,”
Tadao Wakatsuki, who heads a small labour union formed in 2006 for Toyota group workers as an alternative to what he calls the main “puppet” union within Toyota, said the chronic labour shortage was getting worse, not better.
“It’s putting a big burden on the existing workforce,” he said.
Uchino’s lawyer, Yoichi Iwai, who represents another Toyota worker suffering from depression caused by overwork, said the problem of labour abuse was rampant at Japanese companies.
A Toyota spokesman said he could not comment on workplace conditions. He also declined to say whether the practice of voluntary overtime existed, citing the possibility that the Labour Standards Inspection Office would appeal against last Friday’s court decision. It has until December 14 to decide.
Hiroko Uchino, who said she was probably the first to speak out in public against Toyota on the ‘karoshi’ issue, accused Japanese media of being reluctant to give Toyota any negative press, fearing repercussions on advertising revenues.
“One regional paper refused to print Toyota’s name, only calling them ‘a carmaker in the Nagoya area’,” she said. “Another magazine also refused to disclose the company, and when I saw the issue, the back cover carried a Toyota ad.”
Editing by Roger Crabb