1980s >> 1983 >> no-947-july-1983

Human robot

The revelations contained in a double-page article in the Sunday Times of 17 April under the emotive title “Diary of a Human Robot”, were eye-openers to those who believe in the romantic Western version of Japanese industrial relations — open-air exercises followed by hard, dedicated work, rooted in strongly loyal “family” feelings and carried out in a pleasant, healthy atmosphere with calm efficiency. Kamata was a seasonal employee at the Toyota Motor Company and these extracts show how he experienced his job.

Accommodation
On Kamata’s first day he becomes familiar with his new surroundings; his dormitory sleeps 1344, and the neighbouring building, which holds a further 2528 workers in a similar layout of dining room, bath, social room and small meeting room is named the Refreshing Breeze Dormitory.

Rank system
The dehumanisation of the Toyota worker begins in earnest with the issue of his uniform and stripe of rank, the colour signifying the person’s status. And then:

After everyone has received a uniform, we have our photograph taken. I sit in front of the camera holding a piece of cardboard with the number 881 8639 on it like a prisoner. The company informs me that this number will be used instead of my name for all official business. Thus, I am formally hired as a seasonal worker by the Toyota Motor Company.

This should not come as too much of a surprise, since it is an open acknowledgement that the capitalists are not concerned with a person as an individual, but solely with his or her ability to work; the capacity to be exploited at the point of wealth production is the salient feature of a working person.

Acceleration
Kamata soon learns that the work is not as easy as it looked when performed by practised hands:

The slowness was entirely imaginary. Before I can even fasten one gear, my body is pulled to the next station. I try my best to hurry, but it’s impossible. I struggle, I fumble, then I find myself intruding on the next guy’s area. The next box is already waiting, carried there by the conveyor belt without my noticing.

The 45-minute lunch break necessitates a 100-yard dash to the canteen, and of this time, 10 minutes has to be set aside for replenishing the stock of parts for the next session. The smoothly perfect mechanisation of the work procedure is illustrated on shift change:

Already, the man on the next shift is waiting for me to finish — As soon as I put my hammer down, he picks it up and begins precisely where I left off. A baton pass, and neatly done

and it is enlightening to read the author’s epilogue, where he writes:

When I left Toyota, assembly time at the main plant for transmissions was one minute 14 seconds. This had been shortened by six seconds while I worked there, and production had been increased by 100 to 415 units. Returning seven years later I found that assembly time had been cut to 45 seconds and production raised to 690 units. This increase was achieved solely through accelerating the work pace.

Safety
During his stay, the journalist participates in a “safety” meeting which

. . . consists of chanting in chorus safety slogans that the team chief reads to us. This continues until he reaches one that says, ‘Let’s work with plenty of time and energy in reserve’. He decides to miss it out. saying. “That’s impossible. We’re always pressed for time”.

This philosophy is admirably illustrated two months later by a serious injury in his own plant, and a fatality in another:

The worker was repairing a machine (naturally he had to do it on his lunch time). He got caught between a beam for replacing parts, and the machine. There was no-one to hear his calls. He was dead for an hour before they discovered his body.

The serious injury in Kamata’s own plant is greeted with concern by the general foreman and team chief, since it could lead to a reduction in their bonus payments. Kamata sums it up: “Who could have invented a system like this?”

Paul G. Robinson