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US businessman: China workers are holding me hostage in my own factory

Chip Starnes, the American CEO of Specialty Medical Supplies, has been held captive at his factory since last Friday by workers who have been with him for nearly a decade. NBC's Eunice Yoon reports.

An American businessman in China has said that workers at his own factory are holding him hostage in a dispute over money.  

Medical supply magnate Chip Starnes said his employees have refused to let him leave since Friday because of a spat over severance pay.

He said that large groups of staff follow him around the site in a remote Beijing suburb, blocking all the exits if he tries to escape.  

“I have been here a long time,” the 42-year-old said in an interview from inside the factory. “I am not being physically abused or anything like that. The first couple of days were very tough. There was more mental stuff going on."

"I need to go back to my hotel. I need to take a shower. I need to change my clothes. I need to do some necessary things to come back professionally and work this out," he added.

Starnes said that the local Chinese authorities had done little to help him and the workers had the backing of local unions.

“This is just the way they want to resolve an issue,” he said. “I just thought I would have a little more support from the outside, from local government.”

Starnes claimed that the problems began when he laid off 35 people and paid them severance packages.

Jealous of the large lump sums they received, the remaining workers demanded that they get the same amount, even though they still had jobs.  

“All the workers who have jobs want full severances,” Starnes said. 

He added that most of the employees had been with the company for most, if not all, of its time in China and he had no intention of moving the business.  

“Our position is very secure here,” he said, though he admitted that he should probably have made what was happening clearer to his employees.

“China is still a great place," he said, but added, "being stuck in here isn't the way I do business.”

Chi Lixiang, the head of Communist Party-controlled Union Rights Department, laughed at suggestions that Starnes was a hostage.

“What do you mean holding him hostage? … Our representatives said already that they are all female employees so how can they hold a well-built man hostage? You must be joking,” he said.

NBC News' Le Li and Henry Austin contributed to this report.

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