Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Workers holding boss over wages

American Chip Starnes, co-owner of Specialty Medical Supplies speaks to the media from a window as he is held hostage by angry workers (AP)

Chinese workers keeping an American executive confined to his Beijing medical supply factory claim they had not been paid for two months in a compensation dispute that highlights tensions in China's labour market.

The executive, Chip Starnes of Specialty Medical Supplies, denied the workers' allegations of two months of unpaid wages, as he endured a fifth day of captivity at the plant in the capital's north-eastern suburbs, peering out from behind the bars of his office window.

About 100 workers are demanding back pay and severance packages identical to those offered 30 workers being laid off from the Coral Springs, Florida-based company's plastics division. The demands followed rumours that the entire plant was being closed, despite Mr Starnes' assertion that the company doesn't plan to fire the others.

One worker, Gao Ping, told reporters that she wanted to quit because she hadn't been paid for two months. Ms Gao said her division - which makes alcohol prep pads, used for cleaning skin before injections - had not been doing well and that she wanted her salary and compensation.

Workers in other divisions saw her division doing badly, thought the whole company was faring poorly and also wanted to quit and get compensation, said Ms Gao, who had been working for the company for six years.

Mr Starnes, 42, denied that they were owed unpaid salary. "They are demanding full severance pay, but they still have a job. That's the problem," he said, still in the clothes he wore when he went to work Friday morning.

Chu Lixiang, a local union official representing the workers in talks with Mr Starnes, said the workers were demanding the portion of their salaries yet to be paid and a "reasonable" level of compensation before leaving their jobs. Neither gave details on the amounts demanded. Workers believed the plant was closing and that Mr Starnes would run away without paying severance.

Mr Starnes said that since Saturday morning, about 80 workers had been blocking every exit around the clock and depriving him of sleep by shining bright lights and banging on windows of his office.

The stand-off points to long-ingrained habits among Chinese workers who are sometimes left unprotected when factories close without severance or wages owed. Such incidents have been rarer as labour protections improve, although disputes still occur and local governments have at times barred foreign executives from leaving until they are resolved.

Mr Starnes said the company had gradually been winding down its plastics division, planning to move it to Mumbai, India. He arrived in Beijing a week ago to lay off the last 30 people. Some had been working there for up to nine years, so their compensation packages were "pretty nice," he said. Then workers in other divisions started demanding similar severance packages on Friday, he said.

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