Thursday, June 27, 2013

Is turn about fair play at sweatshops?

With all the discussion about various news stories that have been going on many people may not have noticed what is going on in China.

A factory owner is complaining about inhumanity. It's not because the factory workers are being abused though; it's because they're holding him hostage.

He says, "I think it's inhumane what is going on right now. I have been in this area for 10 years and created a lot of jobs and I would never have thought in my wildest imagination something like this would happen."

There appear to be conflicting views of what has been going on according to the following two articles. The first seems to indicate it is about the demand for a severance package; the second also mentions unpaid wages for two months.

I may not agree with these tactics but I'm not in any rush to shed any crocodile tears for this executive.

US factory boss held hostage by workers in Beijing By LOUISE WATT — Jun. 24 2013

quoted from AP

BEIJING (AP) — An American executive said he has been held hostage for four days at his medical supply plant in Beijing by scores of workers demanding severance packages like those given to 30 co-workers in a phased-out department.

Chip Starnes, 42, a co-owner of Coral Springs, Florida-based Specialty Medical Supplies, said 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.

The workers were expecting wire transfers by Tuesday, he said, adding 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.

"I feel like a trapped animal," Starnes told The Associated Press on Monday from his first-floor office window, while holding onto the window's bars. "I think it's inhumane what is going on right now. I have been in this area for 10 years and created a lot of jobs and I would never have thought in my wildest imagination something like this would happen."

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.

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 involving foreign bosses.

The labor action reflects growing uneasiness among workers about their jobs amid China's slowing economic growth and the sense that growing labor costs make the country less attractive for some foreign-owned factories. The account about local officials coercing Starnes to meet workers' demands — if true — reflects how officials typically consider stifling unrest to be a priority.

Huairou district and Qiaozi township governments 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."

Representatives from the U.S. Embassy stood outside the gate much of the day, and eventually were let in. U.S. Embassy spokesman Nolan Barkhouse said the two sides were on the verge of an agreement and that Starnes would have access to his attorneys. It was unclear what agreement might be reached, and subsequent attempts to contact Starnes were not immediately successful.

Starnes said the company had gradually been winding down its plastics division, planning to move it to Mumbai, India. He arrived in Beijing last Tuesday 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.

Christian Murck, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said he wasn't familiar with Starnes' case, but that such hostage-taking was "not a major problem" for the foreign business community.

"It happened more often say 15 years ago than today, but it still happens from time to time," he said. "It rarely leads to personal harm to the managers involved, but there are cases when it has in years past."

Chinese workers holding US boss say wages unpaid June 25 2013

Quoted from Associated Press

Chinese workers keeping an American executive confined to his Beijing medical supply factory 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 two months 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 back pay and 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.

The dispute highlights general tensions in China's labor market as bosses worry about rising wages and workers are on edge about the impact of slowing growth on the future of their jobs.

Inside one of the plant's buildings, about 30 mostly women hung around, their arms crossed. One worker, Gao Ping, told reporters inside an administrative office that she wanted to quit because she hadn't been paid for two months.

Dressed in blue overalls and sitting down at a desk, Gao said 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 her division doing badly, 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, 42, 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 workers believed the plant was closing and that Starnes 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 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. Then workers in other divisions started demanding similar severance packages on Friday, he said.

Kevin Jones, who advises U.S. companies on Chinese labor and employment law, said it is better if American executives stay at home and let their local managers lay off workers.

In a case last week, Jones said the chief financial officer of a U.S. telecommunications equipment maker wanted to come to Beijing to explain the situation and give 41 white-collar workers their termination notices.

"We told him to stay in America," said Jones, who chairs the Shanghai-based Faegre Baker Daniels labor and employment practice. The company's lawyers met with six employee representatives in a hotel. "We had two bodyguards but that was just in case things got out of control," Jones said.

In the first article it says that this type of thing happened more often fifteen years ago but it still happens from time to time now. I hardly remember them reporting on this ever either fifteen years ago or recently.

Why hasn't this been reported more often if it is a semi-regular occurrence?

There hasn't been much reporting about the sweat shop conditions in the third world in the traditional press unless there is a major disaster like the recent large fires and building collapses but they report much more on this in some alternative outlets. The oppression of workers around the world has been standard operating procedure for a long time and it costs a lot of money and results in lower quality merchandise. This means that the savings for cheap merchandise hasn't actually been passed on to consumers at all; instead it has just been used to increase the profits for those that call the shots that lead to this oppression.

One of the things that they fail to mention is that when they save money by taking advantage of cheap labor abroad it comes with additional expenses, including shipping and distribution as well as the money they have to pay for armed guards to oppress the workers and protect the executives when they visit their factories. If they diverted all these bureaucratic expenses back to production and treated their workers better they could take advantage of factory direct savings and many other things to avoid passing the costs on to consumers and the quality would be better.

If consumers knew that a portion of the money they pay for their goods are being used to oppress the workers that build them and that the workers that provide actual value to the products were only receiving a minimal fraction of the money consumers pay would they approve?

If voters knew that the trade secrecy laws that are passed by there elected officials are being used to make it harder for most people to understand how the economic system works would they approve?

This is essentially what was happening thirty years ago before the globalization movement dramatically expanded along with a large number of mergers and acquisitions. I haven't been able to look into specific examples anymore than most other people but this seems to follow a common pattern except for the fact that they took matters into their own hands and it was actually reported. In this case it seems to have led to a settlement according to an article, U.S. exec Chip Starnes freed from China factory. The article states, "Its resolution offers further proof that, in China, taking the law into one's own hands may achieve the best results." Some sources seem to think that things have been resolved but problems with the system seem to continue to be overlooked. The reason this seems to have happened in the first place is that workers don't have any other alternatives that actually work. They supposedly have protections under the law and channels that they can go through to have their grievances addressed but in practice they don't work at all and the workers know it more than we do here in the US.

Most of us don't think that this is the appropriate way to go about things but when the appropriate way to go about things doesn't work then, at minimum this should be considered reasonable mitigating circumstances. Before he was released he managed to do an interview, U.S. executive does live TV interview from through the window of a Chinese factory where he's been held hostage by workers for FIVE days. this also appeared on CNBC; he didn't appear to be nearly as oppressed or subject to inhumane treatment as many of the other sweatshop workers that have had to live with this all their lives and for him it ended fairly quickly.

For what it's worth another report on this provides additional information, US boss held in China leaves plant after payout. This article is notable for a different reason related to reporting trends that might raise confusion. It was the link that I provided for the second article a couple of days ago but when I looked at it today the story had changed and since I had saved a copy I was able to locate another article to cite for it. This is far more common than most people realize although a more common problem is that many news stories are simply deleted. When citing some articles I have noticed that there are some that are more reliable than others but it is difficult to tell which is which.

Regardless of how this came out it seems to me that much more needs to be done to protect workers and consumers as well as the environment and to cut down on the bureaucratic expenses that are designed to benefit only those who control the system at the expense of the rest of us.

One of the most import things that needs to be done is to do away with corporate secrecy laws that enable them to cover up their human rights abuses.

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