China workers flee COVID-19 restrictions at massive iPhone factory

China workers flee COVID-19 restrictions at massive iPhone factory

Tensions at the Zhengzhou factory highlight the economic and social costs of President Xi’s non-spreading coronavirus policy, a tightly controlled system of mass testing and quarantine closures that has fueled growing discontent. It also clarifies the potential risks to global supply chains and products from China’s approachwhich requires shutdowns, work restrictions and drives for mass testing when a single COVID case emerges.

Local authorities were scrambling to organize buses to bring workers, who had left the factory, into central quarantine. The Dagang provincial government has sent buses and officials to help transport employees to quarantine sites for seven days for mandatory isolation before allowing them to go home, it said on WeChat.

At least six provinces and cities in Henan Province have asked residents who have just left Foxconn to contact local authorities before returning home. Foxconn, along with the local government, has also arranged buses for employees who choose to go home.

But Foxconn has also issued three notices to its workers at the Zhengzhou plant, pledging to ensure safety, legitimate rights and income for those who wish to stay, according to a WeChat statement released by the Zhengzhou city government on Sunday.

food scarcity

Resentment was brewing among employees at the main plant, as the emergence of COVID-19 cases plunged it into a closed-loop system. Food has become a concern after the Taiwanese company that makes most of the iPhones sold around the world closed cafeterias at its manufacturing site known as “iPhone City”.

At one point, workers on production lines were given only boxes of meals, with those injured or fearful of leaving their company-provided dormitories given more basic fare such as bread and instant noodles, Bloomberg News reported.

Apple CEO Tim Cook visits the iPhone production line at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou in 2012. AP

It is unclear how many workers have been allowed to leave Foxconn. The company hires several temporary workers from nearby areas to assemble electronics including Apple’s latest iPhone 14. Foxconn and Apple did not immediately provide comment outside of normal business hours. Foxconn said on Wednesday that production was not affected by what it called a “small” outbreak.

China’s zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic has disrupted factories and supply chains. Closed loops enable companies to keep operating during lockdowns, but they negatively affect workers, whose movements are so limited, some are even asked to sleep on factory floors. Tesla used a closed loop to resume production during the turbulent Shanghai shutdown earlier this year.

In May, hundreds of workers clashed with security personnel at the Quanta Computer Factory in Shanghai after being prevented for months from contacting the outside world.

Foxconn fallout

Now, the country’s largest single private sector employer is feeling the ramifications, and is often hailed as an example of China’s manufacturing prowess.

The discontent comes at a critical time for Apple, which launched the iPhone 14 during an unprecedented decline in global demand for electronics. While it has done better than other smartphone makers, it has backed away from plans to ramp up production of its new iPhones this year after an expected increase in demand failed, Bloomberg reported. Apple reported better-than-expected results on Thursday but warned of a holiday slowdown.

Any disruption in Zhengzhou threatens to disrupt Apple’s meticulously coordinated supply chain. Thousands of components are shipped from Europe to Asia to Zhengzhou, hand-assembled into machines, and then transported to the rest of the world.

Over the past few days, social media sites such as Douyin and Weibo have been flooded with photos and videos, allegedly taken by Foxconn workers unhappy with conditions at the factory. One widely shared clip featured trash piling up outside bedrooms, while another showed people jostling for food at an apartment complex, where workers were allegedly sent to quarantine.

Others have posted calls for help. Messages sent to users sharing these videos on Douyin went unanswered, and Bloomberg was unable to verify the authenticity of these specific videos.

Bloomberg and AP

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