(c) 2013, The Washington Post.
(c) 2013, The Washington Post.
It's a story to give an American manufacturing executive nightmares: He arrives at his Beijing factory to lay off 30 people and instead is taken prisoner by his employees, who demand compensation.
That's what happened to Charles Starnes, a co-owner of Coral Gables, Fla.-based Specialty Medical Supplies. Starnes visited the factory last week to wind down the company's plastics division and move it to Mumbai. What exactly the workers wanted is a matter of some dispute.
Starnes said they expected higher wages and severance packages and brought local government officials to back them up, according to an interview this week with the Associated Press. A union representative said they were just asking for unpaid wages before the factory shut down. Either way, it made for striking imagery, with photos of Starnes trapped behind bars.
"I feel like a trapped animal," Starnes said in the interview. "I think it's inhumane what is going on right now. I have been in this area for 10 years and created a lot of jobs, and I would never have thought in my wildest imagination something like this would happen."
The situation remained unresolved as of Tuesday evening, according to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which has been monitoring the events.
"Chip remains held hostage at our Beijing factory," Les Capella, the U.S. president of Specialty Medical Supplies, wrote in an email. "We are actively working with Beijing authorities to get him out to safe ground and, although making progress and keeping communication going, he remains held against his will."
Nicole Thompson, a spokeswoman for the State Department, added that the agency is actively monitoring the situation.
"We have asked that the Chinese government work with the appropriate authorities to ensure his safety and security," Thompson said in an email. "We are in contact with the U.S. citizen and providing appropriate consular assistance."
Detaining a company executive isn't unusual in China, though it rarely happens to American chief executives.
Lacking other recourses for abuses, workers will sometimes act against managers when they're on-site. In January, for example, the staff of an electronics manufacturer in Shanghai went on strike and locked 18 managers in a room to protest harsh work rules, according to the advocacy group China Labor Watch, which cited news reports. Usually, it doesn't make for international headlines.
"This has been occurring for a long time," Li Quiang, executive director of China Labor Watch, said through a translator. "Workers do this because bosses have a history of just running off, and workers know this, so they trap them in, and say we're not going to let you run, you're going to pay us."
They also do it because it works, Quiang said, when official legal procedures are unreliable.
Worries about factories abruptly closing in China have been magnified in recent years as rising wages have pushed manufacturing to poorer areas of the country and to places such as Cambodia and Vietnam. Foreign investment in China actually fell by 3.7 percent from 2011 to 2012, the only time that has happened since the global recession-induced dip in 2009.
Specialty Medical Supplies' sector, the medical device industry, has been a bright spot. With strong demand driven by an aging population in China and elsewhere, the industry's revenue is expected to grow by more than 10 percent per year through 2017, according to the research firm IbisWorld. It's also the kind of higher-tech manufacturing that China should develop, given its maturing economy, experts say. But despite the Chinese government's attempts to educate workers about their rights, the specifics of how much severance they're entitled to is often unclear. That leads workers to take action even when they're not sure what's going on, in what University of Michigan professor Linda Lim calls the "grapevine effect."
"Very often, things get misrepresented," Lim said. "It's possible they were taking a preemptive strike, because so many other owners have left and left people in the lurch . . . the company needn't have done anything wrong."