For the past four days Chip Starnes, an American executive and co-owner of Specialty Medical Supplies, has been barricaded in the company’s medical supply plant in suburban Beijing by several workers demanding severance packages comparable to some 30 veteran workers who had already been laid off.
Starnes has claimed that local officials had visited the 10-year-old plant on the capital’s outskirts and coerced him into signing agreements Saturday to meet the workers’ demands even though he sought to make clear that the remaining 100 workers weren’t being laid off.
He said that the workers were expecting wire transfers by Tuesday, and claimed that about 80 of them had been blocking every exit around the clock and depriving him of sleep by shining bright lights and banging on windows of his office. He declined to clarify the amount, saying he wanted to keep it confidential.
It is not rare in China for managers to be held by workers demanding back pay or other benefits, often from their Chinese owners, though occasionally also this also involves foreign bosses. Workers inside the compound, a pair of two-story buildings behind gates and hedges in the Huairou district of the northeastern Beijing suburbs, repeatedly declined requests for comment, saying they did not want to talk to foreign media. The Huairou district and Qiaozi township governments also declined to comment.
A local police spokesman said police were at the scene to maintain order. Four uniformed police and about a dozen other men who declined to identify themselves were standing across the road from the plant.
“As far as I know, there was a labor dispute between the workers and the company management and the dispute is being solved,” said spokesman Zhao Lu of the Huairou Public Security Bureau. ” I am not sure about the details of the solution, but I can guarantee the personal safety of the manager.”
U.S. Embassy spokesman Nolan Barkhouse said the two sides are on the verge of an agreement and that Starnes would have access to his attorneys. It is unclear what the agreement may be, and subsequent attempts to contact Starnes have not proven successful.
Starnes said the company had gradually been winding down its plastics division, planning to outsource it to Mumbai, India. He arrived in Beijing last Tuesday to lay off the last 30 workers, some of whom have been working there for up to nine years.
“It happened more often say 15 years ago than today, but it still happens from time to time,” stated Christian Murck, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. “It rarely leads to personal harm to the managers involved, but there are cases when it has in years past.”
One of the nation’s best-known charities is paying disabled workers as little as 22 cents an hour, thanks to a 75-year-old legal loophole that critics say needs to be closed.
Goodwill Industries, a multibillion-dollar company whose executives make six-figure salaries, is among the nonprofit groups permitted to pay thousands of disabled workers far less than minimum wage because of a federal law known as Section 14 (c). Labor Department records show that some Goodwill workers in Pennsylvania earned wages as low as 22, 38 and 41 cents per hour in 2011.
“If they really do pay the CEO of Goodwill three-quarters of a million dollars, they certainly can pay me more than they’re paying,” said Harold Leigland, who is legally blind and hangs clothes at a Goodwill in Great Falls, Montana for less than minimum wage.
Goodwill International CEO Jim Gibbons, who was awarded $729,000 in salary and deferred compensation in 2011, defended the executive pay.
“These leaders are having a great impact in terms of new solutions, in terms of innovation, and in terms of job creation,” he said. Gibbons also defended time studies, and the whole Section 14 (c) approach. He said that for many people who make less than minimum wage, the experience of work is more important than the pay.
“It’s typically not about their livelihood. It’s about their fulfillment. It’s about being a part of something. And it’s probably a small part of their overall program,” he said.