Zhang Yao remembers the moment he realized something had gone wrong at the massive Chinese factory where he and hundreds of thousands of other workers assembled iPhones and other high-end electronics.
In early October, supervisors suddenly warned him that 3,000 colleagues had been taken into quarantine after a person tested positive for Covid-19 at the factory.
“They told us not to take off our masks,” Zhang, speaking under a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, told AFP by phone.
What followed was a weeks-long ordeal including food shortages and a constant fear of infection, before he finally fled on Tuesday.
Foxconn, the Taiwanese tech giant in Zhangjiagang, said it was facing a “protracted battle” against infection and imposed a “closed” bubble around its sprawling campus in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou.
Local authorities sealed off the area around a major Apple supplier factory on Wednesday, but not before there were reports of employees fleeing on foot and a lack of adequate medical care at the plant.
China is the last major economy committed to its coronavirus eradication strategy, as it continues with sudden shutdowns, mass testing and lengthy quarantines in a bid to stem emerging disease outbreaks.
But the new variables tested officials’ ability to quell unrest and hamper economic activity with the threat of sudden disruptions.
Several workers recounted scenes of growing chaos and chaos in the Foxconn complex of workshops and dormitories, which form a city within a city near Zhengzhou Airport.
“Positive tests and double lines (in antigen tests) have become a common sight” in his workshop before leaving, Zhang told AFP.
“Of course we were afraid, he was very close to us.”
“People with a fever are not guaranteed to receive the drug,” another Foxconn worker, a 30-year-old who asked not to be identified, told AFP.
“We are drowning,” he said.
Those who decided to stop working were not offered meals in their dormitories, Zhang said, adding that some were able to subsist on a personal stock of instant noodles.
Kay, a pool worker who gave an interview to state-owned Sanlian Lifeweek, told Foxconn that “closed loop” involved cordoning off the driveways between the apartment complexes and the factory, and complained that he was left to his own devices after being thrown into quarantine.
TikTok videos geolocated by AFP showed piles of uncollected rubbish outside buildings in late October, while employees in N95 masks squeezed crowded shuttle buses from dormitories to their work stations.
A 27-year-old woman working for Foxconn, who asked not to be named, told AFP that her roommate who tested positive for Covid was sent back to her residence Thursday morning, crying, after she decided to hand over her notice while in quarantine. .
“The three of us now live in the same room: one of us is a confirmed case and two of us have a positive rapid test result, and we are still waiting for our DNA test results,” the worker told AFP.
Many had become so desperate by the end of last month that they tried to return to their hometowns to get around Covid transport barriers.
As videos of people pulling their bags on highways and struggling to climb hills went viral on Chinese social media, authorities rushed damage control.
The Zhengzhou city government said Sunday that it has arranged special buses to take employees to their hometown.
Neighboring Henan Province has officially reported a rise in more than 600 COVID-19 cases since the beginning of this week.
When Zhang finally tried to leave the Foxconn campus on Tuesday, he found the company had set up hurdle after hurdle.
“There were people with loudspeakers announcing the latest Foxconn policy saying there would be a reward of 400 yuan ($55) every day,” Zhang told AFP.
A crowd of employees gathered at the assembly point in front of empty buses, but were not allowed to enter.
The people in hazmat suits, known colloquially as “big whites” in China, claimed to have been sent by the city government.
“They tried to convince people to stay in Zhengzhou… and avoid going home,” Zhang said.
“But when we asked to see their work ID, they had nothing to show us, so we suspected they were in fact from Foxconn.”
Foxconn referred to the local government’s closure orders from Wednesday when asked by AFP if it was trying to prevent employees from leaving, without giving any further response.
On Sunday, the company said it was “providing employees three free meals a day” and was cooperating with the government to provide transportation back home.
In the end, the crowd of dissatisfied workers who had gathered decided to take matters into their own hands and walked more than seven kilometers on foot to the nearest entrance ramp to the highway.
There, more people who claimed to be government officials called on employees to wait for the bus.
The crowd had no choice because the road was blocked.
The buses finally arrived at five in the afternoon—about nine hours after Zhang had begun his attempt to secure transportation.
“They were trying to crush us,” he said.
Back in his hometown, Zhang is now waiting for the period of home quarantine required by the local government.
“All I can feel is that I have finally left Zhengzhou,” he told AFP.
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