- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2006

ZILINA, Slovakia — The arrival of South Korean carmaker 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 work force, forcing management to stretch a point and change established practice.

Obligatory exercises have been transformed into voluntary sessions after mostly hostile reaction from 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 reporter based in this northern city.

If the concept of a few minutes of “soft stretching” to start the day has worked well elsewhere, for Slovaks, it has 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 Mr. Dvorak, who has participated in the stretching sessions.

Peter, 34, a 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 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.

Kia Motors began building its Slovak plant in October 2004. The first car should roll off the production lines in December. Full production capacity of about 300,000 cars a year should be reached in 2008-09.

Hyundai Motors has said it will build its first European plant about 30 miles away at Nosovice in the eastern part of the Czech Republic, where production of 300,000 cars a year is expected to be reached in 2008.

The Czech and Slovak plants will cooperate, though management has not said whether the Slovak or South Korean model for morning exercises will be applied.

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