Specialty Medical Supplies
The factory location of Specialty Medical Supplies in a Beijing suburb, is where workers are holding the company's co-owner, Chip Starnes, hostage. Specialty Medical Supplies

An American executive is being held hostage at his company’s medical supply plant in Beijing by several workers demanding severance packages comparable to some veteran workers who had already been laid off. For the past four days, Chip Starnes, co-owner of Specialty Medical Supplies, a Coral Springs, Fla.-based company, has been barricaded in the plant in suburban Beijing.

According to a report by the Associated Press, Starnes, 42, said that he had been coerced into signing agreements on Saturday to meet the workers’ demands, even though the 100 or so employees were not being laid off. Though Starnes’ company had no plans of letting go of the workers, they were expecting to see the hefty severance packaged wired to them by Tuesday.

Chip Starnes
Chip Starnes, CEO of Specialty Medical Supplies is being detained in the company's suburban Beijing factory by workers. Weibo

The demands for the undisclosed amount came after around 30 long-time employees got news that they were being phased out of the company, and were receiving compensation in the form of severance packages. This news, along with the company’s plans to eventually move manufacturing to Mumbai, India, had other workers, many of whom were not as tenured, demanding the same treatment in preparation for the eventual downsizing.

“I feel like a trapped animal,” Starnes told a reporter through the bars of the first-floor window he was being held in. “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.” Starnes says that about 80 employees have been blocking all exits from the building around the clock and using sleep deprivation tactics by shining bright lights in the window and making noise outside the office window.

Local police officers have been designated to patrol only to ensure the situation does not escalate to violence; aside from that, the local police will not assist in freeing Starnes. “As far as I know, there was a labor dispute between the workers and the company management and the dispute is being solved,” spokeswoman Zhao Lu of the Huairou Public Security Bureau said, adding that they “can guarantee the personal safety of the manager.”

Kevin Jones, a China labor and employment lawyer at Faegre Baker Daniels in Shanghai, has seen these situations in his 17 years working in the China. “In China, if this kind of situation happens, the police will not intervene, unless things get totally out of hand but employees are usually smart enough not to do that,” Jones said via email. “The embassy is powerless to do anything, so people are pretty much on their own [to negotiate],” Jones said.

This type of rogue tactics is actually not uncommon in China. Cases of managers being held by workers with various demands from increased salary to improved benefits have been recorded, but not often do they involve foreign management.

Jones says that these situations happen when people in management positions personally deliver news of layoffs or changes to workers. Jones recently had a client, a U.S.-based company that was conducting layoffs. Executives wanted to personally meet with the employees, but were advised not to by Jones, who has seen instances like Starnes’ unfold. Instead Jones, accompanied by out-of-sight bodyguards, went himself to a neutral location.