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Chip Starnes: American Executive Held Hostage By Chinese Factory Staff

In a practice known as "bossnapping," Chip Starnes, founder and president of the Florida-based Specialty Medical Supplies, has been held hostage by workers in his company's Beijing medical supply factory since Friday. Despite the reasonableness of many of the workers' demands, this action is unlikely to improve the labor situation in China.

The factory workers claim that they have not been paid in two months. Chu Lixiang, head of the government-run Huairou labor union who is representing the workers, says that they are demanding back wages and severance funds like those given to the 30 workers recently laid off. Those workers were from the plastics division, which is being relocated to Mumbai, India. Starnes was in Beijing to lay them off. At that point, rumors circulated of the plant's closing, despite Starnes's statements otherwise. The hostage-takers fear that if the plant closes, Starnes will leave and they will not receive severance. Some workers have expressed the intention to quit after an agreement is reached.

Starnes denies that the workers' claims, saying "They were all paid on Monday". He focuses on the severance demands, to which he does not seem inclined to acquiesce, despite being held hostage. Said Stares, "They are demanding full severance pay, but they still have a job. That's the problem." He asserts that such compensation would bankrupt the company.

Starnes says that approximately 80 employees blocked all the factory exits since Saturday morning. They have been depriving him of sleep by shining bright lights and banging on his office windows. Lixiang insists that Starnes is free to move around the factory. An attorney has arrived to help negotiate Starnes' release, and Chinese government officials believe the situation can be solved "through dialogue." American embassy officials have also visited, but, under Chinese laws, they are not able to take any actions other than assess Starnes's welfare.

Starnes's case, though, is not unique. "Bossnapping" is relatively common in China and has included accidentally or intentionally killing other workers or executives' family members. However, usually victims are Chinese bosses, not foreign executives. There are companies that specialize in helping American companies fire their Chinese workers to avoid bossnapping. Kevin Jones, who chairs Faegre Baker Daniels's labor and employment practice division in Shanghai, advises Americans to allow local managers to deal with the workers. He brought bodyguards with him when he laid off workers from a Beijing branch of an American telecommunications company "just in case things got out of control."

Despite its frequency, bossnapping is unlikely to help Chinese workers improve labor standards, whether or not Specialty Medical Supplies accedes to these workers' demands. Even if the workers' demands are reasonable, the employees do not appear sympathetic to international audiences when they hold an executive hostage. It is unlikely, then, that the American public would pressure the company to change its policy towards its workers. Even it did affect the public sentiment, as a medical supply company, it is not very vulnerable to consumer boycotts. Public expressions of disapprobation, if they do impact the bottom-line, are not likely to be very effective against employee demands that would. Furthermore, companies are not interested in encouraging workers to take the executives hostage, which acquiescing might do. Additionally, any agreement in this case would only apply to this case and not necessarily change how this firm treats the rest of its workers or how other firms treat their employees.

As such, Chinese workers are unlikely to improve the overall pattern of labor practices in China through this hostage taking. Nonetheless, Chip Starnes remains in captivity.

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