A Broward businessman who was held hostage for nearly a week at his Beijing factory spent his first day back home questioning whether he’ll keep doing business in China.
During his captivity, the company lost up to $1 million, said Charles “Chip” Starnes, and had to pay up to $600,000 more for his release.
He arrived home early Friday, greeted by more than 50 friends and relatives holding signs and balloons.
The first thing he did was eat some Chinese food.
“It was good to see everybody, good to be back on friendly soil, see some faces that you know who are on your side,” said Starnes.
Since his return, Starnes said, he hasn’t slept, despite being sleep deprived during his confinement.
Safe in his gated Parkland community, Starnes, co-owner of Caribbean Medical Brokers Inc., which does business as Specialty Medical Supplies, looked back on the events leading up to his being held hostage for six days.
Starnes, who visits the factory several times a year, arrived in Beijing in mid-June to relocate the company’s injection division to India. About 30 workers were being laid off and were given severance packages.
“It was supposed to have been simple,” he said.
Disquiet began the morning of June 19, when around 50 workers from the company’s alcohol prep pad division went on strike, sitting on equipment bound for India. Many of the “alcohol prep girls,” as Starnes called them, wanted to quit and get severance packages similar to the ones given to the workers in the injection division.
Tension escalated June 21, when a chartered engineer arrived from India to audit the company’s assets for import and workers realized he was evaluating equipment from all divisions. The company asked the engineer to examine all fixed assets for financial reasons and had not announced any plans to move the rest of the plant, Starnes said.
Rumors were further fueled by the fact that the company had recently cut down all trees on factory grounds to prevent pollen from contaminating sterile products, Starnes said. A “bad seed” among management also helped spread misinformation, according to Starnes.
There were also complaints that the company owed the workers back wages, which Starnes said was untrue.
By the afternoon of June 21, a worker whose arm had been injured by an injection molding machine more than nine months earlier came to Starnes’ office asking for compensation due to arrive that day. He told Starnes that if he didn’t get paid, he wouldn’t let him leave.
“I kind of brushed it off a little bit,” said Starnes, who said the payment was late because a wire was delayed. Starnes said he offered the man a check, but he demanded cash.
As Starnes grabbed his briefcase and left his office, he saw four trucks pull up near the entrance to the executive wing. Out jumped nearly 150 workers — most of them women — from the alcohol prep pad division and the warehouse, cooks and cleaners. They shut the gate, blocked the exits and occupied the wing, refusing to leave until everyone got a severance package.
“This is surreal, and is it real?” Starnes wondered at the time. “As it led into the night, it became very real very quick.”
By 10 p.m., local government officials and police arrived, and pressured Starnes to capitulate, he said. They went back and forth for nearly eight hours.