Toyota’s ‘low-productivity’ workers and the problem of performance assessment

Toyota has culled 350 workers from its Altona plant, based on an assessment system that rated individuals’ performance. AAP

As if losing their jobs wasn’t bad enough in a contracting local economy, the 350 laid-off workers from the Toyota plant in Altona, also leave with the stigma of being a “low-productivity” worker or, colloquially, a “slacker”.

How this will impact on future job prospects, their financial situation, and family life remains to be seen. However, it is a fair bet that many will struggle and face significant risk of poverty, long-term unemployment and/or entrapment in precarious jobs, as well as other social and family problems.

According to reports, the high dollar and falling export demand were the main reasons for the retrenchments, but the 350 were selected specifically on the basis of “low productivity” after a process of workplace assessment.

The reports brought to mind the stories of a number of people who participated in my studies on low paid, precarious work. The research showed that increased performance targets are a key tool for adjusting labour levels in a range of industries. One woman left a permanent job in a public sector organisation as a result of performance pressures:

We were monitored on an hourly basis against performance benchmarks and, if we did not reach them, you would receive an email so there was a lot of pressure. In nine years, the individual benchmarks were doubled. Most people really struggled on a daily basis to make it.

Another worker in a call centre describes how work is allocated:

What they do is take an average, worked out mathematically and the average is what they expect, that and above, but not below. So, constantly monitoring and assessing you. You’re only as good as your last survey and, if your strike rate on that last day was down a bit, they go by your last performance and that is not always in your control because you get a lot of refusals (to participate in the surveys).

A participant in the study who had worked in a factory reported:

All those people in the office, white collars, they’re working out who’s fast and who’s not. And if you are not up to it – because they have you through a (labour hire) agency, you’re not back there. It is like human battery hens. It’s disgraceful.

In the first case, performance benchmarks are increased so an entire team of workers is under pressure with some, such as the worker I spoke to, eventually falling by the wayside. In the second case, the call centre worker reported on the lack of control she had over responses to her telephone surveys which meant she did not receive subsequent offers of work. In the third case of the factory, the employer simply used the advantage of excess labour supply to keep and reject workers on the base of their speed – regardless of quality and accuracy of their work.

While performance benchmarks are part and parcel of business practice as an indicator of productivity, it is evident they can also be used as a tool to expedite and justify the disposal of workers with an added benefit to the company of laying the blame on the workers themselves for their inadequacies and failure to make the grade. It also obviates any blame on management for poor practices and failures to adjust in a rapidly changing market situation.

Toyota must have seen the writing on the wall for its exports - and its Altona workforce - with the high Australian dollar over the last two to three years. This calls into question the context under which the performance assessments were made. What pressures were brought to bear on the workforce and individual workers (as per the case studies above)? How were the performance assessments constructed? Was everyone treated equally – including management? How did redeployed injured workers fare in the assessments?

One of the most important questions: how did flexibility relate to productivity in the performance assessments? We know that many workplaces have fostered a culture of multi-skilling to enable workers to move between job tasks and for companies to manage work processes. But can flexible workers - working across a range of areas - meet the highest productivity standards of the specialised workers? What are the implications in performance assessments?

Losing a long-term, full-time permanent job is especially risky for workers over the age of 40 as many of the Toyota workers are. Laid-off workers may find themselves long-term unemployed (and are especially at risk with the stigma of “low productivity”) and ultimately pushed into jobs at much lower levels of security and pay than they held previously. They remain entrapped in these jobs, often cycling between spells of unemployment, including long-term unemployment. This was the experience of many of the women who participated in my studies.

There are few opportunities for regaining the type of jobs these workers held in the past because of the long-term decline in full-time permanent employment. Any sort of insinuation of poor performance in past jobs further reduces opportunities for permanent jobs. Clearly, skill levels and qualifications are important, but the research shows that there is a declining return on these assets, especially for older workers. Furthermore, there are few avenues and little support for retraining.

Unemployment and entrapment in low paid, low-quality jobs affects mental and physical health. It damages the fabric of family life and fosters poverty and social exclusion. Companies would do well to consider their social responsibilities for workers that they intend to sack. Loading them up with a set of disadvantages (the stigma of being a low-productivity worker) as they are marched out the door is a particularly sordid and unnecessary business practice.