Engineer who exposed flaws in cars produced by the Toyota Vietnam says he would do it again, if needed
A Toyota Innova, a popular model in the country used widely by many taxi companies, runs on a street in Ho Chi Minh City. Toyota Motor Vietnam announced last week that it plans to recall nearly 9,000 Innova cars to repair flaws exposed by one of its employees.
Just one year ago Le Van Tach built a three-story, 80 square-meter house in Vinh Phuc Province to the north of Hanoi.
It took him almost seven years of hard work and saving every penny possible to afford the house.
But he has readied himself to sell it at short notice.
"Of course, I would never have thought of selling my house just a year after it was built," said Tach, an assembly engineer at Toyota Motor Vietnam, which is based in Vinh Phuc. "But if I cannot live here anymore, I would have to sell it as a last resort."
"I have been prepared to quit my job and move to somewhere else, if I have to."
Tach, a 35-year-old ordinary looking man of slight build, has been in the national spotlight since late last month when he lodged a complaint with the Vietnam Register, a quality control agency, saying there were three major problems with the Innova and Fortuner models produced by his employer.
Tach alleged that the cars made in Vietnam had balance issues since some screws were not tightened in accordance with directives issued by the Japanese parent company. He also said the brake systems and seats do not meet Toyota's safety standards.
In the wake of a public outcry that followed Tach's whistle blowing, Toyota said last week that it plans to recall nearly 9,000 Innova cars, its bestselling seven-seater vehicle in Vietnam, to repair the three flaws including a faulty pressure cylinder for their rear wheel brakes.
Heroes vs. Villains
Before sending letters about the technical flaws in the car to the general director of Toyota Motor Vietnam (TMV) three times between December 2010 and this February, Tach, still a TMV employee, said he'd been telling company managers about the problems for years but his concerns fell on deaf ears.
Back in 2006 and 2009, Tach had also reported to his Vietnamese superiors some technical problems that could cause "grave consequences," but these were not taken seriously.
"On March 1, I sent my bosses the "˜ultimatum' to let them know that I would have to report the problems to the media if no immediate action is taken. I hoped this would make them change their mind," Tach said. "But I heard nothing from them, and after four weeks, I felt I had no choice but to expose the case to the public."
Tach's action has made him a hero - a whistleblower who dared to challenge the giant automaker to protect consumers for many people across the nation.
"Tach has set an exemplary model for younger generations in Vietnam to follow," reader Phung Thi Ngan wrote to the Tuoi Tre newspaper. "Before getting to know Tach, I had assumed that a courageous person like him doesn't exist in our society."
But back in Vinh Phuc Province, where he lives and works, Tach is not a hero for colleagues who blame him for training an unflattering spotlight on them.
"A colleague of mine has just asked me why I still come to work everyday after all the damage I have done to the company," Tach said. "I just tell him that I didn't do anything wrong."
Vu Huu Phuong, a colleague, declined to comment on his acts. "I'm not authorized to speak to the media on this issue. Any press inquiry in this manner must be handled by Toyota's top management."
An ex-colleague, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was also reluctant to discuss the ethics of Tach's actions, but wanted to comment on the technical aspects.
"The way Tach exposed the issue is likely to make consumers think that the technical flaws stem from a systematic fault of the parent company, but in fact they were just caused by several individuals at Toyota Vietnam," he said.
"But at the end of the day, it's obvious that auto consumers will benefit a lot (from Tach's actions)."
Tach said ever since the story about the flaws broke out, his wife and parents have not stopped worrying about his safety. He said several people had contacted another family member (whose identity he declined to reveal) to indirectly harass him.
"I think the message from them is clear: stop blowing the whistle," Tach said.
"˜My son is right'
However, no matter what people say, he believes in what he did, Tach said.
"If people think what I have done is just a PR job for myself, I see no need to convince them otherwise. I believe that as a human being, everyone has a conscience that asks us to do the right things by society."
"My actions will be vindicated, sooner or later."
His mother Nguyen Thi Thanh, who lives in a village in the northern province of Nam Dinh is also confident in the rightness of his actions, even as she worries about his crusading tendencies.
"This has caused me a lot of stress; I can't sleep well," said 57-year-old Thanh. "My husband and I are just farmers and we have virtually no idea about what our son has been doing. But we have taught him to be an honest person since he was a child.
"I only hope the authorities will protect my son because his safety is now my highest concern."
Tach said he was prepared to quit TMV and work for any company which offers to hire him. He did not rule out the possibility of returning to his hometown in Nam Dinh to run an auto repair service of his own.
No matter what happens next, Tach said, he would not hesitate to expose any other wrongdoing because "that's just the right thing to do."
His mother thinks that is not likely to happen again, any time soon.
"I know my son is right. But I doubt if someone else will give him another chance (to do the right thing)."