Thursday, March 16, 2006

Russian Boot Plant Continues Traditions

Russian Boot Plant Continues Traditions

Interesting article from the AP (found on Yahoo! news) about a little factory in a little Volga River town known for its valenki — the felt boots that protect the feet of Russian children and adults from the harsh winter. These would be the ancient cousins of Sorel boots and other similar felt-lined winter boots in the US.

The plant was shut down in the late 90s, but with increasing costs of doing business in Moscow, the plant was acquired by Biitsa - which was looking for reduced production costs. Worked out well, as Kalyazin was a village (like many in Russia) in need of jobs. In return for monthly pay averaging around 5,000 rubles, or $175, some 90 workers take bales of dusty, rough wool from Uzbekistan and Tajikstan and beat, steam and shrink it into boots.
"Of course we'd like bigger salaries," shop steward Maria Lukyanova said, the wistfulness in her tone suggesting there's no better pay to be had in the depressed town.

Yet it's the town's economic backwardness that saved the valenki plant, said Vadim Ivanov, the factory's manager. "It's not unimportant that we are located in a small city and the land here costs very little, so there weren't fights over land or manufacturing sites," he said. "And since the equipment at the factory is pretty unique — it cannot be used in other manufacturing — there was no point in selling it off." The equipment is decades old, but Ivanov says they don't have much problem finding spare parts. Many other valenki plants in Russia have closed, providing a steady source of equipment like the metal shoe trees used to shape the boots.
A couple of other points that I found interesting - the company has a large board near the entrance, announcing: "These employees bring shame to our enterprise." which displays anyone who is late or drunk at work. Also the workers get free milk to help compensate for the bad health effects of working in constant high humidity.


Megan Case said...

The milk thing is actually in the Russian labor code. Employers are required to provide milk to people who work with certain chemicals because it is supposed to help leach these chemicals out of the body. Another Russian health superstition? I don't know.

A 5000 ruble salary is about at the Russian national average, and I bet it goes further in a small town than in SPb or Moscow. So I don't think it's exactly a sweatshop by Russian standards.

W. Shedd said...

Russian health superstitions? Really!? I've never heard of such a thing! (HA!) I try to be real careful about that topic and take every health "fact" told to me by Russian friends very seriously. But they really can have some different ideas about what is healthy or not. I guess a glass of milk can't hurt.

I wasn't trying to say it was a sweatshop - hope I didnt give that impression. Katja actually thought 5000 ru wasn't bad (She is from Rostov Veliky which is just east of this village). I think work moving to towns and villages outside of Moscow is a good thing. I think more of that would happen if Russia had a decent highway and communication system. As the article points out, labor and land are much less expensive outside of Moscow. Why wouldn't a factory locate itself 2 hours from Moscow? Even without highways, economic pressures in Moscow may drive more and more factories to the surrounding country-side. You can't continue to cram 1/10 of the Russian population into one city.