Japanese companies 'exploit workers'

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Indy Politics
(First Edition)

JAPANESE management techniques exploit and regiment British workers, yet give them a greater capacity for disrupting production.

The conclusion is drawn after an investigation of foreign-owned firms which practice the so-called 'Total Quality Management' and 'Just-In-Time' procedures which are also increasingly adopted by UK-controlled organisations.

Total Quality Management, which is meant to 'empower' workers to police their own performance, really means 'total management control', according to a paper, Pushing Back the Frontiers, to be published in the New Technology, Work and Employment journal.

However, the Just-In-Time production system, under which stocks are kept to a minimum, will result in instant disruption if employees go on strike, say the authors, Rick Delbridge, Peter Turnbull and Barry Wilkinson, of Cardiff Business School.

Such production lines, where targets can be set hourly, often have lights which show amber if workers cannot keep up the pace. One manager at Kawasaki said he liked to see amber lights because 'it means we are really busting ass'.

In one Japanese plant in Britain individual performance charts are displayed above workers' heads at the end of production lines and in the canteen. In most such factories absentee rates are also displayed, a practice now well established at Nissan's car plant at Sunderland, the authors say.

The study is being published in the wake of a report which attacked the strict 'social control' practised by Nissan and amid growing union opposition to the kind of agreements demanded by Japanese companies establishing plants in Britain. Both the Transport and General Workers' Union and the GMB general union have recently announced that they will no longer enter company-sponsored 'beauty contests' to represent workers on greenfield sites. Last year a TUC resolution denounced such practices as 'alien'.

The Cardiff Business School study reports that Japanese management techniques are often seen as 'management by stress'.

Workers are expected to eliminate any waste of materials and time, while control is exercised through 'peer group pressure' dictated by management ideology. 'The system is ultimately intended to ensure 60 minutes of useful labour from every worker in every hour,' the paper says.

The idea that decision-making is devolved to the shopfloor is a 'deception' and a 'facade' to conceal the fact the surveillance is centralised, the paper says.

Workers further down the production line are meant to be seen by colleagues as 'customers', but under the system they have 'responsibilities without rights'.

While the Just-In-Time approach in theory gives workers more potential for disruption, any propensity for militancy has lain dormant so far. 'Workers are preoccupied with surviving the system rather than beating it,' the authors say.

Pushing back the frontiers: management control and work intensification under JIT/TQM factory regimes, to be published in New Technology, Work and Employment Autumn 1992 (Vol 7 No 2) from Blackwell Publishers.