VW campers roll out of plant with a 'cottage industry' feel

If American work-safety rules were in effect, the company that builds the Volkswagen campmobile would be up the creek. There are, for example, workers who spray-paint without masks and others who breathe sawdust-filled air that makes the eyes smart.

If the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had anything to say about it, the factory would be shut down.

Here at Westphalia-Werke AG, however, there is no such risk, yet the company itself cannot be blamed for the conditions.

Blame the law, says Anne-Marie Beckmann, product manager of recreational vehicles and a member of the Westphalia-Werke board of management. She explains: ''In Germany a company has to offer protective equipment to a worker, but whether or not the worker uses the equipment is up to him.

''In some jobs a company would have to provide a pair of steel-toed boots to protect a worker's feet, but it cannot insist that he put them on.''

Should the law be changed? ''Yes,'' she affirms, ''the law should be changed.'' But given the independent stance of the German motorist - and worker - it's unlikely to happen.

Meanwhile, without Westphalia, VW might not be in the camper business.

The Westphalia factory site here is a complex of low-rise buildings where workers handcraft, piece by piece, the innards for VW and Mercedes-Benz campers, not only for sale in Europe, but all over the world.

The plant was set up in 1844 by Johann Knobel to produce agricultural implements. When the Arab oil embargo struck in 1973, camper output fell almost in half. Today, the company is up to about 45 VW campers a day and a handful of

In fact, the factory seems more like an old-time ''cottage industry,'' spread over some 225,000 square meters, that just grew and grew. Mrs. Beckmann quickly agrees, adding:

''The biggest problem we have here is the need to automate the facilities.''

Indeed, if modern assembly methods were introduced, it would get rid of the safety problem now endured by the workers.

The workers themselves, however, don't seem to complain and, with West German unemployment running at 8 to 9 percent, most of them are just happy to have a job.

Besides its camper work, the Westphalia plant still builds agricultural products as well as trailer hitches and special conversions for government vehicles.

To give some idea of the size of its output, Westphalia consumes some 30 cubic centimeters of plywood a day, 25 tons of steel, and 2.5 tons of fiber glass. For all this, production workers get a daily wage of 30 to 60 marks ($12 to $24).

Do you speak English? I asked a young worker who was making some kind of adjustment on a Westphalia camper.

''I am English,'' he replied, one of about 1,000 workers at the plant, 120 of them non-German. About three-fourths of them work in assembly. The young production worker had been in the British Army, married a German girl, and decided to settle down in West Germany.

Does he like what he's doing? ''It's a job,'' he says with a shrug and a smile.

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