Whistleblower suspended by Toyota Vietnam

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Experts say the company needs to further explain its actions or risk tarnishing its image further


Le Van Tach, an engineer at Toyota Motor Vietnam (TMV) who accused the carmaker of deliberately ignoring technical flaws in April, was suspended on June 11 following accusations that he slandered his co-workers and managers. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre.

The engineer who accused Toyota Motor Vietnam (TMV) in April of deliberately ignoring technical flaws, has been suspended following accusations that he slandered his co-workers and managers.

Le Van Tach's decision to alert the public about a trio of structural errors in Vietnam's most popular  automobiles led to a massive recall. Critics of the company say he is now being punished for his candor and determination to expose the flaws.

TMV officials have denied wrongdoing and insist that the suspension stemmed from a personal dispute among employees.

The beginning

Last Saturday, Tach told Thanh Nien that a letter arrived at his home informing he had been suspended from work for the next three-months, pending an internal investigation.

The document informed the 35-year-old engineer that he would be paid at half his normal salary while they investigated charges that he had slandered the reputation of one of his direct supervisors.

The case began in March when Tach submitted a number of sensitive documents to the Vietnam Register"”a government body responsible for technical oversight on vehicles.

The documents proved that three major technical problems had been overlooked during the construction of the company's Innova and Fortuner models. Innova, a seven-seater car, is one of the best selling automobiles in Vietnam, and is used widely by taxi companies.

On April 1, TMV admitted that some of their vehicles had been built with overly-responsive braking systems while others had been built with improperly-mounted camber bolts and seats.

Two weeks later, TMV issued an apology to its Vietnamese customers and vowed to recall nearly 66,000 cars.

Following Tach's suspension, TMV held a press conference to "share information about its production process and quality control issues." Most of the questions and answers centered around the engineer's suspension.

Official complaint turned slander

On May 31, Tach submitted a petition to TMV's general director alleging that seven company supervisors had insulted and threatened him for blowing the whistle. In his letter, Tach asked for a formal apology from the company.

TMV claims they provided a written response to Tach's request.

The document allegedly acknowledged that some of the accused had admitted to having had "impolite" words with Tach. However, the supervisors maintained that the unpleasantness was all related to personal disagreements and had nothing to do with Tach's actions.

The company also insisted that Tach lacked sufficient evidence to make his claims.

A day later, Nguyen Dinh Chuong, head of Production Engineer Division No. 2 at TMV filed an administrative complaint against Tach asking the company to address his "wrongful accusations."

At the press conference held June 13, Akito Tachibana, TMV president, said that Tach's suspension was a consequence of allegations that he made about his fellow employees.

Tachibana insisted that his suspension had nothing to do with Tach's whistleblower activities.

Tach said that he would protest the suspension for the next three months.

"I am writing letters of protest to submit to the company and relevant agencies," he told Thanh Nien on June 14.

"After three months, I'll be happy to return to work. But if the company doesn't respect me anymore, I will seek another opportunity," he told VnExpress in an interview.

Controversial decision

Experts all over Vietnam have called on TMV to clarify its position.

Lawyer Dinh The Hung, former chief of the Ministry of Defense's Prosecutors' Office, said that many "unusual issues" have arisen in the case.

"If TMV doesn't offer a clear explanation [for Tach's suspension], the public may come to believe that the company is taking unfair revenge on its employee," he told Thanh Nien.

Hung said Tach simply submitted an administrative "request" which the company is now painting as a public "denouncement" of his supervisors.

"These are two different things," he said. "Only a wrongful denouncement could amount to criminal slander."

He also questioned why Chuong was the only one of Tach's seven accused supervisors who asked TMV to punish Tach.

Meanwhile, Pham Van Phat of the Quang Ninh Bar Association, said that TMV hasn't offered a clear explanation of its decision to slap Tach with the maximum suspension allowed by law.

Article 92 of the Labor Code stipulates that employees can only be suspended from work when their continued presence poses a hindrance to an administrative investigation. The maximum suspension period for an employee under administrative investigation is 15 days. That period can only be extended to three months in special cases.

Phat said Tach is not a supervisor of any kind and does not hold influence over others' work. He also said that TMV hasn't explained why they believe Tach merits an extended suspension.

"Is it special because Tach has a background of reporting the company's flaws to the public?" he asked. "TMV must offer a satisfactory explanation when issuing this decision. I didn't see any such explanation but just an issuance of [of their decision]."

More flaws

On June 13, TMV publicly announced that it had discovered four additional minor quality issues in its Innova, Fortuner and Vios cars assembled and sold in Vietnam. However, the company said these issues would not affect the normal operation of the vehicles and that they were preparing plans to address the problems.

TMV did not reveal the number of flawed vehicles nor did it announce whether or not they would be recalled.

Tach claims that he had reported these same technical flaws to TMV, prior to his suspension. He has also alleged that the company attempted to cover up the problems.

"I am finalizing evidence to report to concerned authorities in the coming days," he said.

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