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Chinese Takeout: The confusing case of the Florida businessman held “hostage” by his staff in Beijing

June 25, 2013
By
photo via sun-sentinel

photo via sun-sentinel

 

Yesterday, we started hearing details about Coral Springs businessman Charles “Chip” Starnes being held hostage at his Beijing medical-supply manufacturing plant, Specialty Medical Supplies, after making it known that he intended to shut down one-third of the company’s Chinese operations which he would later move to Mumbai (because, probably, double-meta outsourcing is even CHEAPER). The locals weren’t having it, obviously, and as is apparently the trend, they decided to do something more than roll their eyes at Starnes’ $5,000 severance offer for the 50 (or 30 – depending on the source – out of 180) affected employees. They locked arms in solidarity and have held him at the workplace for the better part of week. Here’s the gist, according to an Associated Press report published by the Huffington Post.

Chinese workers keeping an American executive confined to his Beijing medical supply factory said Tuesday that they had not been paid in two months in a compensation dispute that highlights tensions in China’s labor 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 northeastern 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 rumors that the entire plant was being closed, despite Starnes’ assertion that the company doesn’t plan to fire the others.

Now, we don’t want to get all union thug down here in this right-to-work state, but the conflicting reports being offered about the nature of Starnes’ predicament do make us a little queasy about exactly how much sympathy we ought to have for the guy. In its somewhat whitewashed local report, the Sun-Sentinel – which conveniently avoids the topic of the alleged two-month holdout on wages – sympathizes with Starnes as a sort of victim to labor savages, probably because they actually talked to Starnes and his business partner Les Capella over the phone.

Charles “Chip” Starnes, president of Coral Springs-based Specialty Medical Supplies Inc., said by phone on Monday that he has been prevented since Thursday from leaving his office in the Huairou district by up to 100 workers demanding severance pay after quitting their jobs.

“I’m in a complete shakedown right now, with no control, no access. I’m being blackmailed,” said Starnes, 42. “It is a very bad situation that should not be happening.”

Additonally:

The company intends to move production to Mumbai, India, said Capella. The laid-off workers were given a severance of about $5,000, in keeping with Chinese labor laws, Capella said.

When the plant’s other workers, who produce and package gauze pads, heard about the severance, “they said forget about it, we’re done, we want the money too,” said Capella. Complying would mean the company would have to come up with $500,000 Capella said.

That amount, reports the Sun-Sentinel, would bankrupt the company, at least according to Starnes, who hasn’t slept in five days.

Starnes said when the impasse began, workers locked arms to prevent him from leaving the plant and deprived him of food, water and sleep.

When he tried to sleep on a couch in the office, he said workers banged on the windows and door and shined lights in his eyes. At one point about 40 workers crowded into the office with him, he said. “It was sheer intimidation,” he said.

On Friday, said Starnes, in front of a crowd that included workers, police and government officials, he was forced to sign Chinese language papers he did not understand.

“I said, I cannot sign because it would bankrupt the company,” said Starnes. “There was no way in hell I could sign this stuff.”

Ultimately, however, said Starnes, “I had no choice.”

Now, all of the information coming in seems to be second-hand or at least delivered through Starnes’ desperation, but in the grander scheme it’s worth pointing out that waves or worker revolts are nothing new in Europe, so it looks like China – currently experiencing a shortage in low-wage workers – might have learned its lesson from its EU neighbors. A 2009 CNN report detailed “hundreds” of French workers taking their bosses hostage after an outsourced Caterpillar plant took similar cost-cutting measures. This globalized austerity thing might be coming back to bite big business in the ass? Or is it just a case of poor people behaving badly?

Regardless, back on our shores where many of these jobs probably should be, Congressman Alan Grayson today introduced legislation that would protect workers from retaliation from their bosses, especially after some isolated incidents with Walmart. Here’s his latest press release. Hope you’re having a good day on the job.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                   

June 25, 2013                                                                                                  

Grayson Introduces Anti-Retaliation Bill to Protect Workers

Legislation Prevents WalMart Retaliation Against Employees

 

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Congressman Alan Grayson (FL-09) has introduced legislation to protect workers from retaliation by their employers. Grayson’s bill prohibits employer retaliation against workers protesting employment conditions. It also provides victims of retaliation with legal recourse against employers who unfairly punish them for speaking out.

 

The impetus behind H.R. 2311, the “Worker Anti-Retaliation Act” came when Grayson learned about the recent firing of a St. Cloud WalMart employee, Vanessa Ferreira. Ferreira is Grayson’s constituent, and believes that she was fired for speaking out against the company’s poor employment conditions.

 

Ferreira expressed her support for Grayson’s legislation, saying, “As Americans, we have rights. We have the right to speak up and we have the right to do so without fear of retaliation. Workers should not be in fear of losing their jobs because they are trying to get their employers to commit to fix the problems in their companies. No one should be fired for speaking the truth. That’s not what this country is about, and that’s not what we as Americans are about. I encourage all Members of Congress to support this bill and protect the rights of workers.”

 

Grayson is a staunch supporter of worker rights. Last year, he joined another Central Florida WalMart worker, Lisa Lopez, as she walked off her job as part of a nationwide protest of the company’s retaliation against workers speaking out for better job conditions.  Lisa was fired from WalMart last week.

 

“WalMart is our nation’s largest employer, and it is time to put an end to its retaliatory actions against workers who are merely asking for better working conditions and a livable wage,” Grayson said. “Vanessa and Lisa should be commended for their commitment to a better life for the millions of WalMart employees across the country—but they have suffered retaliation for their efforts instead. This legislation will protect people like them, who are simply trying to achieve the American Dream.”

 

Congressman Alan Grayson represents Florida’s 9th Congressional District, which includes Osceola County, as well as parts of Orange and Polk counties. He previously served as the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 8th Congressional District in the 111th Congress.

 

 grayson.house.gov

 

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  • j j

    Good piece. When I first heard about this incident, I understood that most of the coverage would be pro-owner. It would take a tone of ‘oh isn’t it terrible, a real American held hostage by savages’, and that very few reports would give it a fair hearing from the point of view of the workers. After all, this guy goes over to China to exploit the cheap labor and enrich himself. Then he decides to lay off the low-cost workers for even lower-cost workers!