June 26, 2013 at 8:27 AM ET
The American executive being held captive inside his Chinese factory by his own workers insisted Wednesday he’s tried to leave the building, but has been blocked by angry employees at every turn.
“I tried the other day, and they all pretty much lock arms together and won’t let me go,” said Chip Starnes, speaking to TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie through the barred window of his office.“They’re very aggressive, they only let you go so far around the factory.”
Starnes is the 42-year-old chief executive of Specialty Medical Supplies, which has operated a plant just outside of Beijing for the last decade.
However, the company recently moved a part of its Chinese factory to India, laying off about 35 Chinese workers in the process. Each was provided a severance package. Remaining workers soon began demanding similar compensation deals, even though they were still employed, leading to the confrontation with Starnes.
Employees have prohibited their boss from leaving the building since last Friday, although Starnes said he has made several attempts.
“I did try. I actually tried to go over the gate but they would not let me go,” he said. “I think I’m here to stay. I think it’s a real issue. Sometimes, it’s like it’s a movie. It’s surreal. But it’s real, it’s something I really have to hit head on and address.”
Starnes receives three meals daily and can take showers in a factory bathroom. He has access to the phone and has been in contact with his Florida-based family. He said American embassy officials have contacted U.S. senators, but they are very limited on what they can do because the dispute is considered an economic issue.
“It’s up to the factory workers and me, I guess, as the owner to fix this situation , which is what we’re trying to do right now,” he said.
Starnes called it "very disappointing and saddening" that that the local government hasn’t done more to resolve the issue.
“They do things a little bit different over here. The local authorities, they treat it as a civil issue,” he said. “It’s a factory dispute and it’s sort of made that monetary and they’re hands off. They let the workers themselves handle it inside here.”
Starnes said his lawyers continue to negotiate an agreement for his release, and were speaking with government officials even while he conducted his interview with TODAY.
When Guthrie suggested Starnes try walking out the factory doors while live on camera, he turned down the offer, citing the ongoing talks.
“My attorneys are in here right now, and we’re very close to settling something, so I don’t want to display all the employees and the staff that’s in here right now,” he said. “If we go another day, we move into another weekend, you bet your bottom dollar I’ll take that offer from you.”