VW sends ‘important signal’ as German flagship factory reopens

By Jan Petermann and David Hutzler, dpa
Volkswagen’s headquarters in Germany has taken the first steps towards re-opening. The plant in Wolfsburg is resuming production after a closure that has lasted a month and a half.

Wolfsburg (dpa) – He has only just arrived at Gate 17 of Volkswagen’s flagship factory, but the premier of the German state of Lower Saxony is already having to get used to some changes.

“This is a basic course on how to drink coffee with a mask on,” says Stephan Weil, who is at the Wolfsburg plant for the early shift at 7 am on Monday.

With the company’s workers’ council chairman Bernd Osterloh and personnel director Gunnar Kilian, Weil – who is also on the VW advisory board – began the day in the traditional way: with a hot drink.

A bakery stall close to the southern edge of the world’s largest factory is offering large iced cookies called Amerikaner – but decorated with a marzipan face mask.

In a series of cautious steps, VW resumed production at its headquarters on Monday after almost one and a half months of lockdown due to the virus outbreak.

The company’s plants in Zwickau and Bratislava – along with most of its facilities in China – are now back in production. This week work resumed in Emden, Hanover and also at the headquarters in Wolfsburg.

“We have made all the changes necessary to ensure the safety of our employees,” the VW group chief executive Herbert Diess said. “We are now starting up very slowly.”

That means running production at around 15 per cent of the maximum. About 8,000 employees have returned to work out of a total workforce of around 70,000. Two and a half thousand suppliers have also resumed work.

The Golf’s production line was the first to start up, and the VIP guests witnessed a lot of activity in Hall 54 – although the atmosphere still seemed a bit like watching footballers warming up before a game, rather than seeing the match itself. By the end of the week it’s hoped that work will also get under way on the Tiguan and Touran models. “Everyone is happy to be back,” says brand boss Ralf Brandstaetter.

In order to prevent infections with the coronavirus, the conveyor belt is running at half speed for the time being, so that fewer employees have to be in the confined space. There will no longer be a joint break at 10 am, with workers instead staggering their breaks. Lockers have been moved around to allow for easier access, and employees are being encouraged to take their temperatures at home before they leave for work.

In the production hall itself face-masks are compulsory wherever a minimum distance of 1.50 metres between workers cannot always be maintained. Everywhere there are new markings on the floor to show where walkways have been diverted, and posters with hygiene instructions hang on the walls.

At points where closer contact is unavoidable tables are divided in the middle with plexiglass screens, individual workplaces on the conveyor belt are marked out, and work can be carried out from both sides of the engine compartments, separated by a partition in the middle. Cling film covers keyboards and other computer equipment.

Herbert Diess claims that the work environment is now “at least as safe as at home or in public.” He’s keen to engage with the visiting politician, suggesting cleaning glasses with toothpaste to delay them steaming up while wearing a face-mask. He also suggests politicians need to make quick decisions on purchase incentives for customers to cushion the slump in demand for new cars.

Stephan Weil is a receptive audience, and he sees the resumption of production at VW as “an important signal.”

“This is not just about big corporations,” he says. “We’re also talking about a lot of medium-sized companies all over Germany.”

But there is no overconfidence here. “We must be aware that we have not yet overcome corona”, warns VW’s personnel director Gunnar Kilian. He emphasizes that there is an obligation to constantly ensure that the number of cases does not rise again.

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