At Ulsan plant, a new take on old age

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At Ulsan plant, a new take on old age


Kim Byeong-seop, 65, left, and co-workers show their company spirit at the Kiswire plant in Ulsan. By Kong Jeong-sik

EONYANG, Ulsan - Even at the age of 65, Kim Byeong-seop still rides the 7 a.m. bus to work, which is only 30 minutes from his apartment in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang. Kim has been working at Kiswire’s special wire manufacturing plant in Ulsan since October 2008.

“I have never missed a day or even been late to work,” Kim said. “How much do I get paid? Well, I get roughly 1.9 million won ($1,725) a month,” Kim added.

The plant employee, however, stressed it is not just about money. “You don’t know how much fun it is to just even have to work at my age.”

Kiswire’s plant in Eonyang-eup, Ulsan, is not your average production factory: the average age of its 34 employees is 63. The oldest is Kim Young-il who is 70. The youngest is Kang Gil-bu, 58. Kang is the top manager.

The plant is attracting a lot of attention since the National Assembly on Wednesday the extended retirement age to 60.

Extended retirement

Under standing law the retirement age at 60 is a recommendation; in practice, many companies consider the retirement age to be 55. However, according to a survey by Job Korea, many believe the actual retirement age is 48.

The new statutory retirement age will take effect in 2016 for private and public companies of 300 or more employees. Smaller companies have until 2017.

The business community has expressed concern, especially the financial burden that comes with higher pay for older workers.

Kiswire’s Ulsan plant was refurbished and reopened in September 2008, a year after it moved to China, as as a plant exclusively seniors.

“Since then, we have been hiring retirees who wish to work,” Kim said.

New job after retirement

Kiswire, founded in 1945 by 95-year-old honorary chairman Hong Jong-ryul, specializes in wires and cables used in elevators, automobiles and suspension bridges. It is the world’s second-largest company in its field after Belgium’s Bekaert.

It has 20 or so affiliates, including Kiswire & Arcelor Mittal. Last year Kiswire had revenue of 1.1 trillion won and assets of 1.8 trillion won.

The plant in Ulsan manufactures wires that are used at automobile doors and trunks. Last year it posted 10.4 billion won in revenue with operating profit at 6 percent. It not only supplies leading Korean automaker Hyundai Motor and its affiliate Kia Motors, but Mercedes-Benz, BMW, GM and Audi. Roughly 65 percent of the wires manufactured at the plant are exported.

Former employees of Kiswire could apply for the job at the plant three years after their retirement at age 55. During that time they work part time. Like any new recruit, they have to get through their physical exam and once admitted they are registered as a regular worker.

“By quality we’re No.1 in the world,” said Kim, the oldest employee. “The minimum field experience of our employees is 25 years and maximum 40 years and more,” said the youngest, Kang. “As our employees are well experienced and can even communicate just by looking at each other’s eyes, quality and productivity exceed expectations.”

Employees say the factory has not had an accident since it reopened.

They say this is because the company has taken special care of its employees in every detail.

The first rule at the plant is safety. The plant operates around the clock in three eight-hour shifts six days a week. However, no hours are added to their work schedules.

Each worker has his own lighting stand, since the jobs require crossing wires whose diameter is only 0.2 millimeter (0.008 inches) and the employees’ visual abilities are not as keen as they once were.

Additionally, there is a special crane that lifts the final product that weighs between 15 kilograms and 30 kilograms (33 and 66.1 pounds) with the push of a button.

The plant is equipped with a medical room, and each employee gets a checkup at a nearby hospital once every month.

“Coming to work equals getting your health managed,” said 66-year-old Kim Byeong-seop.

The pay is between 1.6 million and 1.9 million won a month with special bonuses for Lunar New Year and Chuseok. They even get special pay for vacations.

The start of an idea

The idea of a plant for retirees came from Kiswire Chairman and CEO Hong Young-chul, 65. After the labor union agreed not to strike, establishing the foundation for a harmonized management and union, the chairman later came up with the idea as a return of the workers. It took more than a year to mold the concept and three months to implement it.

Today Hong considers the program a success, not only in quality but also productivity.

But after five years of operation are there no problems?

The biggest concern, according to Kang, who heads the operation, is there is no other examples they can look to for managing personnel, job assignments and salary adjustments since there have been no precedents.

Another problem at the plant is that the person who heads the operation happens to be the youngest.

“These are employees with work experience of more than 25 and 40 years who were team or department leaders before they retired,” said Kang. “As such, they have huge egos which does not make it easy to manage.”

He said it makes him uneasy to make work orders or ask them to write a detailed report on the mistakes they made when they are older then he is.

“By position I may be at the top, but at the same time it is the most stressful,” Kang said.

The company is looking into raising the acceptance age from the current 58 to 60 in accordance with the new statutory retirement age.

“Although no details have been discussed we will look into various measures,” a Kiswire official said, adding that the retirement age at the plant in Ulsan would be when the employee’s health prevents he from doing the job.

By Lee Sang-jai, Lee Ho-jeong []
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