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American held at China plant is safe as dispute drags

Published on Monday, 24 Jun 2013
Charles “Chip” Starnes, the co-owner of Coral Springs who also runs Speciality Medical Supplies in China, gestures as he talks to journalists from a window as he is held hostage by workers inside his plant in the outskirt of Beijing on 25 June. The American executive said he has been detained by workers demanding severance packages since 21 June. (Reuters)
A worker looks out from a door with others at the Specialty Medical Supplies plant, where American Chip Starnes, a co-owner of Florida-based plant, is being held hostage at the Jinyurui Science and Technology Park in Qiao Zi township of Huairou District, on the outskirts of Beijing. The American executive said on 25 June he’s waiting for his lawyers to arrive to resolve a compensation dispute that highlights tensions in China’s labour market. Starnes was enduring a fifth day of captivity at the factory. (AP
Speciality Medical Supplies’ workers holding American Chip Starnes hostage push female journalists away from their factory on June 25. (Reuters)
Chu Lixiang (right), director of the workers union of Huairou District, and workers ask journalists to step away from the gate outside the Specialty Medical Supplies plant, where American Chip Starnes, a co-owner of the Florida-based plant, is being held hostage. (AP)
Flags belonging to the US and China flutter through a closed gate at a factory where Chip Starnes, the co-owner of Coral Springs, is being held hostage. (Reuters)

BEIJING: An American businessman who says his employees haven’t let him leave his factory on the outskirts of Beijing over a pay dispute is safe and may be allowed to go soon, the US Embassy said.

Embassy officials met Charles Starnes on 24 June and confirmed he “might be close to reaching an agreement,” embassy spokesman Nolan Barkhouse said by phone. Starnes will be able to meet his attorneys, Barkhouse added.

Starnes was identified by Xinhua news agency as the president of Specialty Medical Supplies Beijing, a company based in Coral Gables, Florida, that manufactures alcohol prep pads and lancing devices. In a phone interview on 23 June, he said he hadn’t been allowed to leave the factory since 21 June over a wage dispute that began after the company decided to move some plastics production to India and pay severance to 30 staff.

“It’s a dispute. I’ve laid off the final 30 workers of one segment of our business, injection moulding,” the Beijing News quoted Starnes as saying. “We’ve closed that down now. It took us nine months to do that,” he said.

Other employees who were to remain at the factory producing alcohol prep pads learned about the decision and decided to quit and demanded the severance pay, Starnes said. When the company refused, they wouldn’t let him remove some equipment. The dispute then drew in other employees who surrounded the factory and blocked him from leaving.

“They said, ‘Alright, if you don’t want to pay, we’re going to sit on your equipment, we’re not going to let you load your stuff’,” Starnes said. “They completely impeded and stopped us.”

Starnes is being held by about 100 workers demanding pay at its 10-year-old factory in Huairou District. Starnes is not allowed out of the factory compound but can walk within the grounds in the daytime.

The company is closing its injection moulding division and moving the factory to India, according to Starnes. Some machines of the alcohol pad division, another division of the company, have also been packed and are ready to be transported.

Workers feared the company would move the equipment at the weekend without informing them and would not pay two months’ worth of salary that is owed, which led to their collective action on 21 June, according to the statement.

Starnes has held several rounds of talks with the workers at meeting rooms and in the factory compound with mediation from the district labour administration and labour union. An agreement is yet to be reached.

The factory has suspended production and all the equipment has been packed for asset evaluation. The company has not bought any materials for production at present, a deputy general manager of the company surnamed Huang was quoted in Beijing News.

“The workers are in a panic. They feel the boss is likely to flee,” said Huang.

The company is also involved in a wage arrears dispute worth 2.7 million yuan (US$436,893), according to Huang, although the figure could not be immediately verified.

(Xinhua and Bloomberg)

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