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Job Insecurity of Japanese Auto Workers Grows : Autos: The feeling, which echos that of U.S. employees, results from job cuts and a further shift of production to plants in North America.

September 27, 1993|ERIC TALMADGE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAYAMA, Japan — One need look no farther than the parking lots to see that company loyalty runs high at Honda Motor Co.'s sprawling plant here.

Preludes, Accords and Civics--most shiny new and many probably made right at the plant--fill row after gravel row.

But ask the workers in this 6,400-employee bastion of blue-collar pride how they feel about their jobs these days, and they are likely to echo their American counterparts.

"Fuan," they may say. Insecure.

As Honda, like Japan's once invincible auto industry in general, struggles to survive recession and plunging profits, many of its employees feel they are being undercut. And they see some of the threat coming from American workers.

While U.S. auto workers fret over the possibility of losing work to cheaper foreign labor because of the North American Free Trade Agreement, similar concerns are beginning to be felt in Japan because of the surging value of the yen.

Already in the process of eliminating 3,000 of its 43,000 workers in Japan, Honda this week confirmed plans to produce by March, 1996, all of the popular Accord and Civic models sold in North America at its factories in North America.

"To be honest, it's a blow to the pride," said Sayama plant worker Tadao Sanada, 48.

He spoke as he and dozens of other workers, clad in their white cotton overalls, wrapped up a day's work and headed off for home in this drab, working-class suburb of Tokyo.

"It just doesn't feel right for work to be going over to the Americans," he said.

Honda spokesmen stress that, in keeping with its policy of local production, Honda's factories in Ohio and Canada produce most of the two models already. Of 393,477 Accords and 219,228 compact Civics sold in the United States last year, only 60,000 Accords and 20,000 Civics were made in Japan.

But they admit the decision to shift more production to the United States reflects the climbing value of the yen against the dollar, which raises costs in Japan and makes American labor cheaper.

The yen has risen nearly one-fifth in value against the dollar so far this year. The dollar's rise has cut deeply into export earnings industrywide.

Honda, for example, last month reported a 62% plunge in first-quarter profits. Toyota Motor Corp., Japan's largest car maker, saw its profits fall 26% in the fiscal year ended June 30.

"With an exchange rate of 105 yen to the dollar, it makes no sense to make cars in Japan and send them to the United States," said Honda spokesman Yoichi Harada. "We've been reviewing how to make profits at that exchange rate, and this is one of the ideas."

Harada said the shift will be gradual and the job reductions done through attrition and decreased hiring, not pink slips.

Labor union officials say they are concerned that moving too much production outside Japan--other auto makers are expected to follow Honda's example--could have a "hollowing" effect on Japan's industrial base, a favorite Japanese criticism of the U.S. economy.

But the union so far supports the current plan, since there are no layoffs involved.

Even though the Sayama plant is not directly affected, to some young assembly-line workers, the reductions and shifts are just another sign that the famed lifetime employment system enjoyed by their fathers may become a thing of the past.

"I guess it can't really be helped in times like these, but I'm worried about my future," said 22-year-old Isamu Owada, who like many other young assembly-line workers showed up for work in jeans and a T-shirt, his uniform stuffed into a rucksack slung over his shoulder. "I don't think of this as a lifetime job anymore."

"It's not that the Americans are our enemies," said another 22-year-old assembly-line worker, who asked to remain anonymous. "But they are taking our work."

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