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Staff stand with Sanlu despite fears for future
Last Updated(Beijing Time):2008-09-22 10:29

The crowds in the courtyard of Sanlu Group headquarters have gradually dispersed in 10 days since the melamine contamination scandal broke, but people are still coming in to return their purchases of milk powder.

The company has set up booths to collect returns from customers. In front of the two cash counters, queues of people, waiting to get their money back, extended about five meters.

Since Sept. 12, Sanlu has recalled all baby formula products found to contain melamine, a chemical that caused kidney stones in infants.

"My brother returned several bags of milk powder two days ago and was compensated for the purchase in full," said Mei Xiao, a Shijiazhuang resident in her twenties. "I came to return bagged milk, but they said they were still examining bagged milk and the result has yet to come out."

A company employee asked Mei to write down her address, contact details and the serial numbers of the bagged milk. "We will inform you how to return them if this batch of goods contain banned substances," he said.

On the other side of the courtyard, workers unloaded boxes of milk powder from trucks, company employees counted them and an accountant led people to the office building to receive their reimbursement.

Gong was sitting in the shade of a tree shadow and waiting. She, with other wholesalers of Sanlu from neighboring Henan Province, came with two trucks loaded with about 1,000 boxes of baby formula.

"I hope Sanlu can repay the wholesale price," said Gong in her thirties, reluctant to give her full name. "Even if they do, I will still suffer losses of about 30 percent due to the transport and storage costs."

Wholesalers are flooding into the headquarters, with consignments of up to 4,000 boxes of powdered milk. "Sanlu owed me about 1 million yuan (147,000 U.S. dollars)," said a wholesaler surnamed Guo, also from Henan. She had recalled the formula from her retailers and returned it to Sanlu.

"I have been here five days and I'm still waiting for Sanlu to give me a solution," she said, sitting on the stairs at the entrance of an office building.

The rest part of the headquarters were quiet though some of the staff were seen working in their offices.

All Sanlu plants have been ordered to stop production. A joint investigation team from the central government headed by the Ministry of Health is working in the company.

Tian Wenhua, sacked as board chairwoman and general manager of Sanlu on Sept. 16, was arrested and charged with producing toxic food a day later. Under Chinese law, she could face death penalty or life imprisonment if found guilty.

The new board chairman and general manager Zhang Zhenling was elected on Sept. 18. He has apologized to the public on behalf of the company and promised to deal with the incident properly.

But employees at the lowest level like Tian, a lady in her mid-thirties, were worried about their uncertain futures.

"I have no idea what will happen," she said. She had worked for Sanlu for 12 years and it was her first job. "What if the company shuts down and I lose this job? I am not young and it will be hard to find a new one. I have aged parents to support and a son in primary school."

But most employees have stood with the company. Tian stayed at the headquarters from morning to evening everyday including weekends, helping set up booths, hand out notices and answer questions from customers. "What I can do now is to do my own job," she said.

Talking about criticism from the public, her eyes watered, "I have been here so long that I feel part of this company. It was very sad to hear these words. I felt as if I was a bad person. But I am as ordinary as those who come to return powdered milk. My son drank it as well when he was young."

The neighborhood near the Sanlu headquarters is home to many of its employees and retired workers. Chen Xiuqiao, who retired from Sanlu seven years ago, has lived here for decades.

"I worked in Sanlu for about 30 years. The company developed well in the past few years. My pension increased," Chen said. "I never expected such an event. How could a firm with a history of 50 years come to this?"

The largest diary producer in Hebei has about 10,000 employees. The younger ones were less emotional, but also anxious about the future of their employer and themselves.

"What everyone here can do is wait. If it is a bad news, I hope a solution for workers comes as quickly as possible so that we have time to prepare for it," said a young woman working at the quality control lab, who refused to be named. "But I still hope the company can pull through this crisis. I like this job. I am willing to go on working for Sanlu."

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