Chinese Factory Workers Hold U.S. Boss Captive

In China, a U.S. factory executive is being held captive in his office by his own workers. He's Chip Starnes, a co-owner of the Florida-based Specialty Medical Supplies. It hasn't been a violent takeover. In fact, Starnes has been able to get a few words out to the press.

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And let's go now to China, where a labor dispute has taken quite a turn. An American factory executive is being held captive in his office, by his own workers. His name is Chip Starnes, and he's co-owner of the Florida-based Specialty Medical Supplies. This has not been a violent takeover. The American boss is cornered in his office and allowed to walk the grounds, just not able to leave the medical supply factory. Employees say the owner owes them two months' back pay, and they're afraid he plans to close the factory without settling the salaries or offering any severance.

We spoke earlier with NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who was outside this factory in Beijing, in a spot where he actually had a view of the factory owner.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Yes. Actually, I'm standing across the street, right now, from his window. Chip Starnes showed up behind this barred window, looking a bit unshaved and haggard. And he explained that he is shutting down a part of his medical supplies business, which makes disposable things like alcohol wipes; and he's moving part of it to India, where labor costs are cheaper.

He is now in negotiations to pay the workers who are owed money, and he says that not all the workers are being laid off. And those who are not being laid will get paid. It's really the kind of labor dispute we see all over China, even cases where bosses are, you know, sort of held hostage in their offices until they reach terms with the workers. It just usually does not happen with an American company boss.

GREENE: Oh, so this happens a lot in China. The difference here is that the owner of the factory is a foreigner, is an American.

KUHN: Yes, that's right. Now, if you talk to the workers, you'll get a different story. They have basically lost faith in this company. They're afraid that the boss is going to take the money and run to another country. They see a lot of signs that look bad. Even the vegetable sellers that sell to the cafeteria at the company, are owed money here. They say even the trees in the company's yard were ripped up and sold. So it's sort of like a bank run. They don't have any faith in the company. They don't have experience in dealing with this situation. They don't have experience in dealing with the media. They don't know who to turn to.

GREENE: And Anthony, you mentioned that part of this is this company looking to India, to do business more cheaply. I mean, is the larger context here that China is, you know, becoming more and more integrated in the global economy and facing some competition?

KUHN: Well, David, the big picture is that Chinese wages are starting to rise pretty quickly, particularly in the coastal manufacturing enclaves. And so foreign manufacturers either have to look further inland, where wages are lower; or they have to look to other countries, including Southeast Asia. So, you know, every country welcomes investment coming in. When it starts to look elsewhere, when it starts to move out - sometimes companies experience difficulties - what is going to happen? We may be seeing this more and more, in the future. And the question is, you know, does China have the infrastructure, and the institutional resources, to deal with it? And in this case, the answer is no, this should not be happening, bosses should not be held hostage in their factories, but the workers feel they have no other way. They're desperate, and they don't know what to do.

GREENE: Well, Anthony, you mentioned that this happens in China often - I mean, a factory owner being held by his own workers, who have some complaints. I mean, how does this usually end? Could these workers, you know, face charges for doing this?

KUHN: Well, it's a funny kind of situation. If you ask the workers, they say, oh no, we're not holding him hostage; but then you ask the factory boss, is he free to go? And he says no. Basically, the workers feel that we're just not going to let anyone leave until this matter is settled. And they're exhausted, too. You know, they don't feel good about dealing with an American boss this way. But they feel helpless and don't know what to do, and lack the resources and the experience to do much else.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Anthony Kuhn, speaking to us from outside this factory in Beijing, where the factory owner is being held by his own employees. Anthony, thanks a lot.

KUHN: Thank you, David.


GREENE: This is NPR News.

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