Mazda Workers In Japan Describe Job Conditions

By Robert Miller, The Militant, Vol.59 no.44, 27 November 1995

NEWARK, New Jersey—I was part of a team of socialist workers who traveled to Japan in late July and early August to attend meetings and conferences organized around the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Washington's atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As an auto worker at the Ford assembly plant in Edison, New Jersey, and a member of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 980, I had an interest in learning about the working conditions and the state of unions in Japan.

Some of the light pick-up trucks that members of my union local produce are sold as Mazdas, so I arranged to tour the plant in Hiroshima. One-quarter of the working population in Hiroshima prefecture works for the Mazda auto company, its subsidiaries, or subcontractors.

The Hiroshima factory spans three kilometers east to west, and close to a million cars are produced there a year. Of the 27,000 employees at the plant about half are production workers, only 50 of whom are women, the plant manager said.

Eleven different cars are built at the complex, which includes engine and stamping plants. I was struck by the large number of operations done by robots on the assembly line. The assembly operations were similar to those where I work, but I noticed that no smoking or refreshments are allowed on the factory floor—very different than my plant.

Production workers get only two 10-minute breaks compared to the 48 minutes UAW-organized assembly workers get in the United States. Workers have no rights to choose shifts based on seniority. Nor is there any job bidding where workers have preferential rights due to seniority. They get three weeks of vacation a year, all on national holiday weeks. Currently, the shifts are eight hours or less and there has been no overtime since 1992.

The plant manager said there have been no layoffs of full-time workers. Instead, all the in-plant subcontractor workers and seasonal workers, who have historically been a part of auto plants in Japan, have been tossed out. The workforce also declined in three years by 3,000, or 10 percent, through voluntary early incentive retirements. There has been no hiring of production workers in recent years and the average age is over 40.

While I was in Hiroshima, an article appeared in the daily paper Asahi Shimbun noting that some 33 Mazda subcontractors have gone bankrupt since the onset of the economic downturn in Japan in 1990-91.

Minoru Matsumoto, who I met at the World Conference Against A & H Bombs, worked for 25 years at Mazda and is currently on staff for the Communist Party. He said average wages are 280,000 yen a month ($2,800) for a worker with about 20 years' seniority, noting that pay for the same job is based on a curve according to the number of years of service. The seniority-based wage system is prevalent in Japan and acts as a heavy discouragement from switching jobs.

Smaller bonuses reported

While Matsumoto was on the job, from 1960 to 1985, about a third of workers' income was from bonuses equal to five or six months' wages. In recent years, the company has decreased the bonus while making puny increases in the base wage.

The union at Mazda—Roren, or Federation of All Mazda Workers' Unions (AMW)—is not an industrial union but part of the automobile federation, which is essentially a coordinating body of company-based unions. As in virtually all Japanese factories with a union, all employees are members of the same union, including engineers, accountants, office staff, and production workers.

I met the vice-president of AMW, Mikio Ohara, at an August 6 rally of 6,000 people against nuclear weapons. He explained that the union does not have a contract with the company. Each spring there are negotiations on wages called base-up, he added, noting that the last increase was paltry and bonuses were equivalent to two or three months' wages, half what they used to be.

I also met six Nissan auto workers before another anti-nuclear weapons rally in Nagasaki on August 9. A forklift driver, Masatoshi Sakanoshita, quizzed me about my union contract. All these workers were somewhat astonished when I related what I consider are some of the modest protections and rights that we have wrested from the bosses and that are in the local and national UAW contracts. These include job bids, choosing vacations, and health and safety provisions that at times enable the union to shut the line down. We agreed that international solidarity was necessary for the fight against nuclear weapons and against the auto bosses.

Women in the workforce

Yoko Kawahara, who has been working at Ishizaki Honten, a Mazda subcontractor, since 1981, explained some of the conditions women workers face. The company where she works manufactures car glass, used in sun roofs and rear defrosters, and employs some 500 workers, with 350 in the car division.

Pointing to the uneven effect of Japan's prolonged recession on men and women, Kawahara explained that in 1981, 90 percent of the workers in the car division of Ishizaki Honten were women and only 40 percent are today. As the openings for higher paying jobs for men are sharply reduced, they remained at Ishizaki and women are increasingly pushed out of the workforce.

From 1981 to 1992 the company was always hiring, Kawahara said. In 1990, she added, women stayed for 7.2 years on the average and men only 2.1 years, before moving to better jobs. Since 1993, there is no more hiring and the men stopped quitting, she said.

Kawahara explained how the union was set up at Ishizaki in 1984. When Mazda built a new plant in Hofu, Japan, Ishizaki set up shop there too. But the bosses at Ishizaki were afraid the Communist Party might set up a union at the new plant so the company bosses went to the Mazda Hiroshima union, Mazda Roren. The union leadership [at the new plant] was hand-picked and one day a lead man all of a sudden announced there is a union.

In 1986, Kawahara became a member of the union executive committee, and she also began to try to address the wage disparities between men and women. Although women at her plant tend to remain in the workforce longer and their average ages are higher, women's wages are seen as ‘supplementary’ income and do not increase according to the ‘curve’ [of the seniority wage system] as men's wages do, Kawahara said.

In 1990, Kawahara initiated a suit against the company for wage discrimination against women. Union officials demanded she drop the suit, saying it would hurt the company, and she was expelled from the union executive committee.

Support from some co-workers, especially women, has helped Kawahara withstand the pressure to quit or drop her legal challenge. She noted that most men are at grade 4, most women at grade 3, and, in retaliation for her fight against discrimination, she remains stuck in grade 2.