After Covid Lockdown, Fear and Unrest Sweep iPhone Factory in China

Covid lockdown measures have generated a wave of fear and unrest inside the world’s largest iPhone manufacturing complex, in north-central China, with stories of food shortages among quarantined employees filling social media, and large numbers of workers fleeing the facility.

The plant, operated by Foxconn, the Taiwan-based manufacturing giant with facilities across China, went into lockdown in mid-October as coronavirus cases were rising in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province. Under China’s zero-Covid policies, cities and companies are expected to take strict measures to eliminate transmission of the virus.

As Covid cases began to be detected in the plant, Foxconn shut the facility off from the outside world, walling its roughly 200,000 workers inside its grounds. It banned eating in the factory’s cafeteria, forced employees to take long, circuitous routes from their dormitories to reduce contact with others, and required daily coronavirus testing and temperature checks.

But what really worried workers were accounts that emerged from employees who had been taken into quarantine after testing positive. At the mercy of Foxconn to feed themselves, some said they were getting inadequate food or none at all, and were also lacking other necessities.

As these stories spread on social media, other workers decided they were better off fleeing their job than risk catching the virus and being forced into quarantine. Two workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation from the company, said that hundreds of workers had left the plant.

With transportation restricted as Zhengzhou dealt with the outbreak, many had no options but to walk home, some over long distances.

China’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19 has been promoted by Xi Jinping, who last month won a third term as China’s leader. The policy, marked by severe lockdowns and quarantines, has led to the shutdown of entire cities because of a handful of cases.

On Wednesday, Zhengzhou officials ordered the region around the plant to go into a seven-day lockdown, imperiling any further attempts to flee. A local notice called the outbreak “serious and complex,” as the city reported 358 new locally transmitted cases on Wednesday, up from 24 on the same day a week before.

On Monday, the authorities closed the Shanghai Disney Resort after an outbreak of 10 Covid cases in Shanghai, Reuters reported. Visitors at the theme park were kept inside until they could provide a negative test.

Earlier experiences in China, such as those with a Shanghai lockdown earlier this year, suggest that the Zhengzhou measures could extend beyond what was initially announced. Visiting the complex on Tuesday, the province’s governor urged the company to improve the care of its workers.

Apple, the maker of the iPhone, did not respond to a request for comment. In an emailed statement, Foxconn, one of the principal assemblers of Apple products, referred to its pandemic measures as a “protracted battle” and insisted that its workers were receiving three meals a day.

But employees accused Foxconn of a chaotic and at times illogical Covid response. They said that the company had sent workers who tested positive for the coronavirus into quarantine centers together with their close contacts, even when those individuals had tested negative. At the same time, other close contacts were told they must continue working.

Leo Lin, 29, who works inside the factory complex, described an atmosphere of panic as quarantine facilities began to overflow and the factory lost its grip on isolating close contacts.

For years, Zhengzhou, a city of 10 million people, has helped supercharge China’s export-driven economic model. Known as “iPhone City,” it has come to manufacture roughly half of Apple’s global iPhone supply.

The seven-day lockdown announced on Wednesday may hurt Foxconn’s ability to ship iPhones from the plant. China’s economy as a whole is growing at its slowest pace in decades under the government’s policy of preventing infections with strict lockdowns that can shut down entire regions over just a handful of cases.

In a sign of Foxconn’s concern about the exodus of workers, the company last week began offering them an extra $14 a day to continue working. On Tuesday, the company increased the figure to $55 a day, according to an official announcement.

Initially, Foxconn did not allow its workers to leave the facility, but as public outrage mounted on social media, the company relented. One worker told The New York Times that it was unclear whether those who left would keep their jobs or get paid for work already performed.

Gao Mingjun, the daughter of a Foxconn worker, said her mother had not tested positive during the outbreak. But the factory placed her mother in quarantine with a colleague sleeping in the bunk above her. That co-worker later tested positive.

Around 5 p.m. on Saturday, her mother decided to walk the 38 miles back to her home in Xuchang, exiting through the complex’s front gate with about 100 co-workers. Some eight hours later, Ms. Gao called her exhausted mother, asking her to take a break at the side of the road. “Her feet hurt too much, and they were all blistered up,” Ms. Gao said.

At dawn on Sunday, after having walked all night, her mother reached the community center in Xuchang.

“The trek was very long,” Ms. Gao said of her mother’s journey. “She’s definitely not going back to Foxconn.”


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