Subaru strains under production pressure

The name of the man who died by suicide has not been made public out of concern for the privacy of his children and because compensation talks are continuing with Subaru, said the family lawyer, Kazunari Tamaki.

Subaru has paid ¥4.08 million ($37,300) for 18 months of unclaimed overtime, he said. The family now seeks damages, which Tamaki said can run up to $913,000 in Japan. Such an amount is meager compared with civil awards claimed in the U.S., Tamaki noted.

The suicide in Japan, aggravated by what Tamaki called workplace bullying, tells the story of what has been troubling Subaru.

The local Labor Standards Supervision Office ruled the suicide a case of “death by overwork,” a phenomenon common enough in Japan that there is even a Japanese word for it: karoshi.

Workers in Subaru’s Japanese assembly plant have been pushed to work longer hours to feed the ever-growing U.S. market. To meet that demand, Subaru has admitted to resorting to such shortcuts as altering vehicle inspection data. And in white-collar offices, employees turned to ploys such as continuing to work long after officially punching out, Tamaki said.

Subaru says the suicide spurred it to survey the overtime practices of some 17,000 employees between July 2015 and June 2017. It found that about 3,400 workers performed unreported “service overtime,” often because they felt pressure to not exceed internal limits on overtime.

The overtime owed to all those employees totaled $7.03 million. The local labor watchdog admonished Subaru to rectify the situation, and Subaru retroactively paid workers last March.

The local statute of limitations restricts retroactive payment to two years.

But Mariko Ohgi, a Subaru spokeswoman in Japan, said the custom of working unpaid overtime was not widespread at Subaru and that it affected only a small portion of the company’s 17,000 workers.

Because the total payout was spread over 3,400 people, individual disbursements were as much as a couple thousand dollars or as negligible as a couple of dollars in some cases, she said.

Confusion about overtime rules by workers and managers also contributed to the problem, Ohgi said. If the boss doesn’t order an employee to work late, for example, but the worker stays voluntarily to finish anyway, does that count as bookable overtime, she asked?

Subaru said it has found no cases in which supervisors ordered employees to underreport overtime. But in Japanese culture, where every yen is sacred, workers didn’t need to be asked, attorney Tamaki told Automotive News.

“There is a corporate mentality that you shouldn’t claim overtime,” Tamaki said at his Tokyo office. “There’s a deadline for the work assigned, and you have to meet that deadline at all costs. I think it’s really the company trying to make a bigger profit by controlling costs.”