BROWARD COUNTY

Broward businessman held hostage in China back home

 

ysavchuk@MiamiHerald.com

A Coral Springs executive is back home in South Florida Friday after being held hostage by his employees in a Beijing plant for nearly a week during a pay dispute.

He arrived back in Broward on Friday morning and was welcomed by his family, telling reporters he was relieved to be back after a "nightmare."

Charles “Chip” Starnes was released after his company, Specialty Medical Supplies, agreed to pay nearly 150 employees an undisclosed sum, according to co-owner Leslie Capella.

Starnes was trapped in his office at the plant for six days after workers began blocking the exits on June 21.

“Right now, I’m still literally in shock,” Starnes told the Miami Herald while boarding his connecting flight from Newark to Fort Lauderdale Thursday night. “I’m jet-lagged. I’ve been going 100 miles per hour and I haven’t stopped.”

Wife Cecily Starnes, along with their three children and his parents, planned to greet her husband with a cake, balloons and posters upon his arrival in Fort Lauderdale before taking him to their Parkland home.

“I just can’t wait to see him, hug him, tell him we love him, get home and maybe give him some fresh clothes,” she said.

Cecily Starnes last spoke with her husband late Wednesday as he was being driven to his hotel from the factory in Huairou district on the outskirts of Beijing.

“He kept saying, ‘Oh my God, I’m so scared, I’m scared,’ ” she said, adding that her husband said he feared for his safety after receiving threats.

Starnes and his lawyers changed cars twice on the way to the hotel to avoid being followed, and his lawyers announced a news conference at the plant to create a diversion while they took him to the airport, she said.

Starnes told the Herald that it wasn’t the workers who had threatened him.

Starnes had no food and hardly any water for a day after his detainment, Capella said.

He then received three meals a day, including KFC and Chinese food.

Starnes later texted that he lost nine pounds during the ordeal.

Around the fourth night, he got a cot to sleep on.

“He’s a big man, so you can imagine that a Chinese cot would not be the most comfortable,” said Capella.

Workers deprived him of sleep by shining bright lights and banging on windows.

It’s not an unusual method for Chinese workers to employ when making demands for pay and benefits. Typically, police don’t intervene, allowing instead a labor official to negotiate.

That’s what happened in Starnes’ case, although the U.S. Embassy did make sure he received drops for an eye infection, his wife said.

Starnes arrived in Beijing to lay off 30 people as the company shut down its plastics division, with plans to move it to Mumbai, India.

When employees saw equipment being packed for shipment to India, many thought the entire factory was being shut. According to the Associated Press, they also alleged the company owed them unpaid salary.

In order to get Starnes released, the company agreed to a compensation deal with workers, even though it did not owe any wages, Capella said. He declined to discuss the terms of the agreement or the amount paid out.

“There was a miscommunication about the shutdown of one division, so the other workers became nervous,” he said.

Starnes has traveled to the factory several times a year for a decade, and no one expected his business trip to go awry.

“We were totally shocked. There were no signs of trouble,” said Capella, who added that this is the company’s only Chinese plant. They co-own Coral Springs-based Caribbean Medical Brokers Inc., which does business as Specialty Medical Supplies.

Capella said Starnes is “like a brother to me,” and he spoke with him regularly during the ordeal, sometimes staying on the phone the whole night.

Although the labor negotiator said all of the Chinese employees would be terminated, Starnes said he would hire some back, despite the fact that they held him hostage.

Capella said the controversy has not affected business at home, although Cecily Starnes said it affected the company financially.

The Chinese workers’ actions may have stemmed from growing job uncertainty amid China’s slowing economic growth and fears that some foreign-owned factories will leave as labor costs increase.

“It certainly makes us more suspect and more leery of what can happen there,” Capella said.

“We knew those things were happening, but until something happens personally, you don’t realize what it’s like.”

This report was supplemented with information from The Associated Press.

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