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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Primorye Learns Work Korean Style

ARTYOM, Far East — In this crumbling former industrial center in Russia's Far East, where legions of unemployed depend on meager government handouts, Svetlana Kovalenko is blessed with a steady job that even pays for lunch.

But the sewing work has its drawbacks, including degrading punishment. After the flu kept her home for two weeks, Kovalenko was forced to stand by a wall near her South Korean boss' office for four hours. She won't miss work again. "Where else can I find a job?" she asks.

Kovalenko stitches at one of nine South Korean-owned clothes factories in the city of Artyom, whose own garment industry collapsed after the 1991 Soviet breakup. The foreign owners bring desperately needed jobs and tax revenues — and a clash of cultures.

With deadlines tight in the global export business, Korean managers have little patience for workplace habits dating back to the Soviet era.

"In Korea, if someone has the flu they work anyway because they know their wages depend on profits," said Lee Yong-moon, chairman of the South Korean Sewing Association in the Pacific coast region of Primorye, where Artyom is located. "Here, people don't work but they are required to be paid," he said, adding that up to 10 percent of the garment factories' workers are out sick on a typical day.

The factories in Artyom make T-shirts, shorts and underwear from imported material for export to U.S. retailers such as Gap and J.C. Penney.

Russian workers still enjoy broad protections from Soviet times — at least formally. Attempts to fire them often result in court battles, with judges siding with workers. And employers certainly don't have the right to make their workers stand in the corner.

But economic reality gives the factories a lot of influence. Seamstresses start at 1,130 rubles ($39) a month, plus a 360-ruble ($12) lunch subsidy — not bad pay for the area. The factories employ 2,000 of Artyom's 113,000 residents. Lee said tax payments added $7 million to Primorye government coffers last year.

For the foreigners, Primorye is a bargain. Eighteen South Korean sewing plants opened in the region after a global financial crisis hit Russia in 1998 and sparked a sharp devaluation of the ruble.

The businesses were attracted to the region's ports and members of the ethnic Korean minority, who can serve as translators in the factories.

And operating in Russia allows South Korean businesses to circumvent restrictive U.S. import quotas on Asian textiles. Globally, the Primorye factories exported $80 million worth of clothing last year.

Yet the Korean businesses bring their own idea of labor conditions. Artyom inspectors in March found that employees at Kovalenko's firm, K.A. International, were regularly punished by standing near a wall. If a manager catches someone on a stool, he might knock it out from under the woman, factory office manager Albina Park said.

Workers have attempted on occasion to create unions, but most failed.

Government authorities say they are trying to reduce friction between managers and workers by frequent inspections. Though possible fines top out at just 10,000 rubles ($345), the Foreign Ministry also can refuse to issue visas for managers. "We have no mercy on them if there are violations of labor conditions," said Yury Chernozub, a lawyer with the State Labor Inspectorate.

The strategy has brought results. Some factories raised their average monthly wage to just over 2,000 rubles ($69) and three tolerate trade unions. One plant spent 2.5 million rubles ($87,000) on improving labor safety last year.

There's another answer to Russian labor demands: importing seamstresses from nearby China. At K.A. International, 270 Russians work side by side with 72 Chinese women. The Chinese don't question working overtime and on Saturdays, Park said.