Toyota factory workers in the United States have been warning company executives since 2006 of some major, fundamental threats to car safety, according to a memo obtained by U.S. congressional investigators. The Los Angeles Times obtained the memo over the weekend and broke a story about it Monday, prompting the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to demand Toyota turn it over.
The two-page memo was penned by Tadao Wakatsuki, a 45-year veteran of the company, along with six other long-time employees, and addressed to Katsuaki Watanabe, the President of Toyota at the time. The workers expressed dire concern that systemic problems in the vehicles were being created in the planning and design stages, not in the manufacturing process.
The concerned employees underscored inadequate development times for new models, the deterioration of craftsmanship in general, and the company’s questionable management practices. The memo says that vital processes had been placed in the hands of “amateurs,” and prophesied that such grievous managerial flaws could destroy the company.
The memo showed that from 2000 to 2005, Toyota recalled more than 5 million cars – 36 percent of all vehicles sold. That rate was substantially higher than the recall rate of other car manufacturers.
“We are concerned about the processes which are essential for producing safe cars, but that ultimately may be ignored, with production continued in the name of competition,” the memo warned.
The memo also outlined a course of action that would correct the company’s pervasive problems: priority on safety, a review of cost-reduction measures, better training for contract workers, and a return to craftsmanship.
Ignoring these key areas may “become a great problem that involves the company’s survival,” the memo warned.
Wakatsuki and his peers braced themselves as they submitted the memo to management, fully expecting a backlash. But nobody ever responded.
“They completely ignored us,” Wakatsuki, told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s the Toyota way.”
Wakatsuki established a labor union in response to the deteriorating working conditions at Toyota. In the memo, he demanded company executives review their cost cutting measures “so that the company can guarantee the manufacturing of safe cars.” He also created a web site on which he could air his perspective.
“Our responsibility as a labor union was to point out these problems that Toyota should have known about. People were overworked; some were committing suicide,” Wakatsuki said, recalling how extensively the company had deteriorated in recent years.
Last month, the Toyota’s new president, Akio Toyoda, apologized to the American public during a congressional hearing, expressing his worry that the company grew too quickly for its own good. Toyoda’s concerns appear to be genuine, except that they suggest quality and safety didn’t slip away on their own but were deliberately pushed out of the process to make more room for profit.
Toyota has repeatedly tried to steer attention away from the electronic control systems in its vehicles by pointing to more superficial or mechanical issues such as faulty floor mats, gas pedal length, and defective throttle assemblies, all of have been covered by recalls.