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LABOUR-JAPAN: Unions Blame Train Company As Crash Death Toll Rises

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Apr 28 2005 (IPS) - While Japan still searches for answers as to how a packed commuter train on Monday jumped the tracks on the outskirts of the western city of Osaka and smashed into an apartment complex, labour activists said West Japan Railway Co. or JR West – the operator of the fatal train line – had to bear a large part of the blame for causing the country’s worst rail accident in 40 years.

”We are almost certain that the fatal accident occurred because the young driver of the train was under tremendous pressure to keep to the schedule. Fear of being punished by the management affected his judgment and led to reckless driving,” Osamu Yomono, vice president of the international affairs committee of the Japan Confederation of Railway Workers Union, told reporters.

Rescue workers Thursday recovered the body of the driver in the mangled remains of the train. The death toll so far has hit 106 with more than 450 people injured, most of them seriously.

From his grave of twisted metal, 23-year-old driver Ryujiro Takami has faced furious allegations that he was responsible for the disaster in the western industrial town of Amagasaki.

Media reports say the young man had been on the job for 11 months and on Monday had overshot a station stop, putting the train 90 seconds behind schedule.

Records showed the driver had been reprimanded once for overshooting a platform by 100 meters. Apparently aware that he would be in trouble again with the management, the driver persuaded the conductor at the back of the train to report he had overrun the platform by eight meters. On Wednesday, officials said that the length was actually 40 meters, the equivalent of two cars.

JR West’s reprimand is in the form of the infamous ”day-shift” where punishment for train drivers include writing reams of self-critical reports, being demoted to weed the company’s gardens or apologizing for weeks to managers.

Treatment is so mentally demoralizing that seven drivers have committed suicide after the treatment. Depression is also common. Two years ago, a group of human rights lawyers in Hyogo-prefecture where JR West is based, sent a statement urging the company to improve its labour practices.

Yomono, who has been fighting for decades to stop this practice, said this situation must be taken into consideration when ruling who is to blame.

”The accident should be turned into an attempt to understand safety. It can only be achieved if the management treats its workers better. A young man lost his life because JR West puts priority on profits over the human rights of workers and safety,” he said. ”The fear of being reprimanded again prevented the young driver from making a rational decision and in due process many innocent lives have been lost.”

Early this month, JR West issued a statement to its employees stating that train delays would betray customers’ confidence.

Lawyer Masako Shimano, a long-time protector of workers rights, points out the train crash is a terrible eye opener to a growing system in Japan where management often disregards the needs of workers, which in turn leads to accidents – many of them fatal.

”Globalisation and rapid privatisation coupled with a system in Japan where human rights have long taken low priority, has led to the development of a frightening situation for workers and the lowering of safety standards,” she said.

JR West was formed as a private company when the government-run 115 year-old Japan National Railway was privatised in 1987 because of heavy losses.

Six private firms run Japan’s vast labyrinth railway system that is used by more than 85 million commuters annually. More than 200,000 people are employed in JR East and West, the two major railways that run in Kanto and Kansai areas respectively.

According to Yomono, JR West takes a particularly harsh attitude towards its workers and he accuses the company’s attitude in trying to be the top-dog in a highly competitive public transport market as being responsible for it.

While the company posted more than one million U.S. dollars in its last financial year, it faces stiff competition from other private railway operators in its territory in Amagaseki.

To compete, JR West promised commuters that it would provide more train coaches and adhere strictly to timetables, as well as providing safe travel for all those that use its service.

Obsessed with punctuality, JR West’s management, according to Yomono, terrorises them with the threat of the ‘day-shift’.

Kenji Ito, an official at the Japan Confederation of Railway Workers Unions, said JR West was particularly harsh on employees responsible for train delays, giving them reprimands, cutting salaries and subjecting them to a ”re-education” process that in some cases was tantamount to being ”pilloried.”

Human rights activists produced tape records of one train driver, Masaki Hattori, 44, which revealed he was sobbing while repeatedly saying ”I am wrong and I am a fool” during three days of harsh questioning by JR West managers in his ”re-education” programme, for falling behind his schedule.

The proud driver, with 20 years experience and no accidents in his record, felt humiliated and later committed suicide.

JR West’s top management is expected to resign to take responsibility for the crash.

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