The relatives of an American executive being confined by workers in a Beijing factory say his living conditions have improved since he opened labor negotiations with union and Chinese government officials.
Cecily Starnes says her husband, Chip, is now working with his third Chinese attorney to resolve a compensation dispute with workers who have held him since Friday.
About 100 workers say they have not been paid in two months. They are demanding back pay and severance packages identical to those offered 30 workers being laid off from the Coral Springs, Florida-based company. Starnes denies those allegations, saying it is a misunderstanding.
Cecily first learned that her husband was in trouble Friday when she received a text message from him. It read: "I am calling the U.S. Embassy for help."
"Your stomach just drops," she said in a phone interview Tuesday. "It's very scary."
Cecily, 45, said her husband had arrived in China to visit the factory of Specialty Medical Supplies last Monday, in part to arrange the transfer of some machines to India from the company's shuttered plastics division. But rumors had circulated that the entire plant was being closed, despite Starnes' assertion that the company doesn't plan to fire other workers.
That's when the workers held him captive, blocking exits and depriving him of sleep by banging on his office door and shining flashlights into the windows, Cecily said.
"They were trying to use intimidation to get him to sign contracts that he had no idea what they said," she said. "They were completely in Mandarin."
She added: "He's frustrated. He's angry. He's tired. He wants to get out of there."
Local police responded for "crowd control," she said, "but they haven't done much of anything else."
John Starnes, 36, said his brother's mood has improved with the changing conditions at the factory. After media coverage, Chip now has a cot to sleep on and is receiving three meals a day, he said. He also said his brother has received medication for eye infections he developed over the last few days.
Relatives said they speak to Chip by cell phone regularly and have been watching the news footage of him speaking to reporters from behind the bars of his office window.
"It's surreal," John Starnes said. "It's something you'd see in a movie or a novel."
Workers have said they believe the company is faring poorly and want to quit and get severance, anticipating a full-scale closure. Starnes has denied the closure rumors.
"It's crazy," Cecily Starnes said. "Even my husband said that's not how you do business, especially since the people who are doing this are the ones who still have jobs."
It is unclear how labor negotiations are progressing.
"Hopefully, it will come to pass soon," Cecily Starnes said. "He's never once given me, 'OK, we're getting close.' He just keeps saying, 'I want this done. I'm ready to get out of here.'"
She said she has tried to keep her family on a normal schedule, with the couple's three children attending camp. The children have spoken to their father several times since his captivity began, she said.
John Starnes said he hopes his brother will be moved to a neutral site to complete the labor talks so he can return home.
"We all want it to be over," he said.