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Czech Republic: Workers Toil At Autoworks

Skoda Auto is the undisputed crown jewel of Czech industry. In a two-part series, correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky takes a look at why the privatization of Skoda has been one of the most successful in the whole of the former East Bloc. This second part examines what all the changes have meant to the 22,000 autoworkers at the Skoda auto plant in Mlada Boleslav.

Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic; 5 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- If the workers are "dizzy from success" at Skoda Auto, it may be exhaustion caused by ever-increasing productivity goals.

In 1991, when German automaker Volkswagen bought a controlling share of the concern, the Skoda autoworks at Mlada Boleslav was churning out 170,000 cars annually. Today, that figure has more than doubled, to 400,000.

Jaromir Cvrcek is a spokesman for KOVO, a manufacturers' union that includes the autoworkers at Skoda. He says the company invested heavily in plant and equipment and wants a full return on its money, hence the grueling pace of production.

"As a result, this system causes the employees terrible pains as far as family life goes. Because, if you take the family as a basis, if both people [husband and wife] work here they see each other very little. They work three days, have two days off. They work different shifts, they work over weekends and during holidays."

But the working conditions have improved. Forty-two-year-old Jiri Plesko has worked as a mechanic at Skoda since he was 17. He says that while the pace of production has picked up, the technology has been upgraded, making the work less strenuous.

"The work conditions are much better, this plant is much more modern than it was before."

And while workers are required to put in grueling hours, they are well paid for their labor by local standards. Average monthly wages in 1999 amounted to about 20,000 Czech crowns, according to spokesman Milan Smutny. That's nearly double the Czech average of 13,000.

While princely in the Czech Republic, Skoda wages are a bargain for the employer compared with wages further west. Volkswagen executives said a few years ago (in 1996) that the cost of employing a worker at Skoda Auto -- including taxes and benefits -- was one-tenth the price of a German worker.

During the communist era guest workers from socialist states such as Vietnam toiled at the Skoda auto plant alongside even convicted prisoners. Today, 1,700 foreign workers -- mostly from Poland but also from Slovakia and Ukraine -- work at Skoda. Many of them do the lower-prestige jobs of welding or painting. They are housed in Spartan dormitory-style rooms scattered throughout Mlada Boleslav.

These foreign workers have few rights. They are not employees of Skoda, but rather contractual hires. Their shifts are longer, too -- 16 hours -- nearly double the shift of the Czech workforce. As a result, Cvrcek says, some of the Polish workers are suffering from poor health.

"Not too long ago, I spoke with one of the doctors at the plant's clinic, and he told me a lot of them [Polish workers] -- because of course they are physically checked out before they start working -- he said a lot of them are literally physical wrecks, especially the Polish workers. Their health is very bad. I asked him why and he said it's due to their lifestyle, they are people, supporting their families, who eat badly, take bad care of themselves, they work 16-hour shifts. Many of them have such overwhelming physical demands that they feel completely destroyed."

While Skoda continues to do well, workers from Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine will continue to come to Mlada Boleslav. Cvrcek says efforts are under way to extend union membership -- and union benefits -- to foreign workers.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.