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Mon, May 01, 2006 - Page 10 News List

Slovak workers snub Kia's daily exercises

CULTURE CLASH The South Korean firm has made formerly mandatory daily exercises voluntary after some workers said that they were reminiscent of the communist era

AFP , ZILINA, SLOVAKIA

Kia Motors' first automobile factory in Europe, in Zilina, northern Slovakia, is pictured last Monday.

PHOTO: AFP

The arrival of South Korean car maker Kia Motors in Slovakia has created a cultural shock at the company's first European plant.

Kia's obligatory morning gymnastics sessions have been snubbed by most of the workforce, forcing management to stretch a point and change established practice.

Obligatory exercises have now been transformed into voluntary sessions following the mostly hostile reaction from existing and would-be employees.

"I personally know someone who would have gone to work at Kia in the information technology sector for an attractive wage but in the end refused, saying that he would not be a performing dog for the Koreans," said Jan Podstreleny, a local journalist based in the northern city of Zilina.

If the concept of a few minutes of "soft stretching" to start the day has worked well elsewhere, for Slovaks it's conjured up images from its not too distant totalitarian past. Obligatory exercise sessions revived memories of the communist era, when the young, willing or not, took part in mass gymnastics exhibitions called "spartakiada."

Kia Motors' spokesman in Slovakia, Dusan Dvorak, said the presentation of the exercises rather than the concept itself caused the problems.

"These are practices which the Koreans would like to apply in Slovakia because of their positive experience as this type of exercise encourages relaxation and helps to increase safety at work," said Dvorak, who has participated in the stretching sessions.

Peter, a 34-year-old financial manager at Kia, agreed that presentation was a problem.

"I do not take part in the morning stretching sessions. It is without doubt a good idea, but I did not like the way it was presented, which seemed like direct pressure," he said.

At the outset, the South Korean bosses could not understand his reticence.

"They did not see why I did not want to take part in exercises, which were a customary practice in all Kia Motors' plants, but now they accept my decision without any problem," he said.

Among Kia's estimated 1,100, current employees, which should rise by a further 2,000 by 2008, there are those who have only praise for the five-minute morning gymnastics sessions.

"We are a group of 10 and carry out six or seven minutes of stretching together. I do not drink coffee, from time to time I suffer from headaches, but after these exercises I feel a lot better," said 35-year-old Peter, who works in one of the plant's five production halls.

He said several dozen people from his section exercise every morning.

Kia Motors, part of the group Hyundai/Kia Automotive, launched construction of its 1 billion euro (US$1.26 billion) Slovak plant in October 2004. The first car for sale should roll off the production lines in December. Full production capacity of around 300,000 cars a year should be reached in 2008-2009.

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