Japanese-style productivity has side effects for EU automotive workers

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This article is part of our special report Quo Vadis Health and Safety at Work?.

SPECIAL REPORT / Ever since European car manufacturers tried to match Japanese-style productivity, the health and safety of the EU automotive sector has declined, say researchers.

Faced with global competition years ago, European manufacturers have decided to adopt the Japanese lean production model, which is used by Toyota, for example. But the results show that one size does not fit all.

According to American researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Japanese automotive workers were more productive than their international counterparts due to the way they were structuring group work in factories.

However, researchers say that while it may have been possible to compare the productivity of workers in Japan and the United States, in many ways these comparisons between Japan and Europe do not make much sense.

Speaking at the conference 'Jobs take their toll: The impact of ageing, gender and occupational hazards on workers', organised by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI),Stephen Bouquin, of the French Université d'Évry Val-d'Essonne, said that it was now possible to criticise the Japanese model from a scientific point of view.

Today, there are still 10-12 global companies in the automotive industry and competition is like a "war", Bouquin says, adding that this has had a huge impact on the organisation of work.

Increased productivity?

While the Japanese model has increased productivity among workers, it has also accelerated health problems.

"The work conditions are extreme," Bouquin continued. "We still see people who have a heart attack while they are busy working at the factory and fall dead in both Japan and in Europe."

The researcher added that most workers at the factories, usually men, report having backaches, headaches and problems with stiffness in their arms and feeling that the power in their hands is disappearing.  Even among the youngest workers, there are regular complaints.

Francesco Tuccino of the Institute for Economic and Social Research in Rome said that the Japanese model could have a mental impact that put workers at risk.

"In the past workers were given time to think about things. Now that's no longer the case. There are more tasks. The mental burden is much heavier. They will be given a series of actions where they have to perform and even if their tasks are becoming simpler, they really need to make an effort, trying to remember them," Tuccino explained.

Labour unions' job

Wolf Jäcklein, policy advisor at industriALL, a global union federation, said that risking workers' quality of life is the consequence of the optimisation processes of car manufactories, which include getting rid of sections with no added value, work at a high rhythm and pace and staff reductions.

Jäcklein said labour unions needed to analyse how the companies were being structured so as to offer them a different production model which goes beyond increased productivity level for the benefit of the workers.

Bouquin added that labour unions should work on sustainable work indicators.

"We have and know everything to make objective conclusions to improve the situation together with specialists," he said.

In 2011, a European Parliament report on the Occupational Safety and Health at Work (OSH) led by MEP Karima Delli stressed that further harmonisation at EU level had to be developed, especially in tackling the development of new psycho-social risks.

Even though EU legislation on OSH existed in the form of a 1989 framework directive and other directives on specific risks or sectors, like REACH, psycho-social risks were not sufficiently dealt with, highlighted the Parliament’s report.

The Commission is currently undertaking in-depth analysis in order to decide on the next steps concerning a future EU occupational health and safety policy framework.

This in-depth analysis includes an evaluation of the previous EU OSH Strategy 2007-2012,  consultation of relevant stakeholders such as  the Advisory Committee on Safety and Health at Work and Senior Labour Inspectors' Committee, and obtaining feedback from all interested parties through the public consultation launched in the summer of 2013.

The precise timing of the strategy has not been decided but it could be in the Spring of 2014.

  • Spring 2014: Possible date of Commission strategy - or a policy framework - on health and safety at work

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