Chinese workers holding US boss say wages unpaid

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese workers keeping an American executive confined in his Beijing medical supply plant 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 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 generous 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.

A worker, Gao Ping, told reporters inside an administrative office in the plant that she wanted to quit because she hadn’t been paid for two months.

Dressed in blue overalls and sitting at a desk, Gao said that 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 how badly her division was doing, thought the whole company was faring poorly and also wanted to quit and get compensation, said Gao, who had been working for the company for six years.

Starnes 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 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.

Chu said Starnes hadn’t paid the workers for two months. She said they feared the plant was closing and that he would run away without paying severance.

Starnes’ attorney arrived Tuesday afternoon. Chu later told reporters that there would be no negotiations for the rest of the day.

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 standoff 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 labor protections improve, although disputes still occur and local governments have at times barred foreign executives from leaving until they are resolved.

Starnes, 42, previously said he’d been coerced into agreeing to meet workers’ demands by Tuesday.

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.

Some of the workers in the other divisions got wind of this, and, coupled with rumors that the whole plant was moving to India, started demanding similar severance packages on Friday, Starnes said.

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