Escape From Foxconn: Inside The COVID Lockdown Chaos Blocking China's iPhone Production
Around China, Zero COVID policy has shut down entire towns and workplaces. But in the high-tech Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, famous for cranking out iPhones, employees were forced to work even if they tested positive. Exclusive testimony from some of those who fled Foxconn premises last week.
ZHENGZHOU — Luo, a newcomer at the Foxconn factory in this central Chinese city, was genuinely frightened when she heard her workplace would be an "experiment field" for new COVID-19 policies: Even during outbreaks, some employees won't stop their production work. Luo was chosen as one of the experiment subjects.
By the end of October, things were getting out of control at Foxconn: chaotic COVID testings, spreading infections, workers quitting their jobs. And Luo felt trapped inside the five million square meters of the Foxconn factory, China's largest producer of Apple's iPhones, which was falsely described as a COVID-free zone.
On Oct. 29, videos of Foxconn workers returning by foot to their hometowns began to spread on the internet. Some workers claimed that due to the company's chaotic quarantine system and poor logistical support, they had chosen to leave on their own and walk for several days back to small towns outside the city.
It would only deepen the delays piling up for iPhone deliveries around the world, and raise new questions about China's policy for dealing with the spread of COVID.
Foxconn has three factory districts in Zhengzhou; the site concerned in this incident is the biggest of the three, covering 5.6 million square meters with nearly 200,000 workers. According to Caixin media, the Foxconn plant is equivalent in size to a typical Chinese town. This massive electronic production empire attracts all kinds of workers, from fresh graduates to family breadwinners from nearby villages.
Infections won't cease, but work won't stop
Workers noticed the increase of COVID in early October. Luo said she and her colleagues are not afraid of the virus itself, but just that they "don't dare to be sick" because there is a serious shortage of medicines.
When she was identified as "contact case," Luo experienced the chaos of the quarantine policies at the factory: First she was asked to isolate in her own dorm, then she was transferred into temporary housing with 11 other people in one room. Since the district's de facto lockdown on Oct. 14, all pharmacies and shops have been closed. A colleague with a high fever had begged for medicine, but the personnel in charge replied that none was available.
Foxconn workers are asked to have daily COVID testings, even when they finish work late at night.
News articles with titles like "COVID is not as bad as you think" had been circulated by local authorities since the breakout, but the workers are not buying the story: It is too different from the official propaganda of the Zero-COVID regime that has convinced them for two years of the dangers of the pandemic.
Still, Foxconn workers are asked to have daily COVID testings, even when they finish work late at night, with lines as long as two hours.
Through the month of October, a lack of transparency at the factory was creating panic. The factory bosses revealed no new information about the cases to the staff, while daily production went on as usual. Since she got her job in September, Luo has been working on the iPhone 14 Pro, making an average of 5,000-6,000 casings a day. She works from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., usually with at least two hours of overtime. As a trainee, she receives a monthly salary of around RMB 5,000 ($690).
According to a report, half of Foxconn's 44 factory plants in China are equipped to produce iPhones, and about one-third have the capacity to produce the latest iPhone models. The Zhengzhou plants produce new ultra-high-end models that are difficult to replace, including more than 80% of the iPhone 14 series.
According to Zhengzhou Customs statistics, in 2021, the total import and export of Henan Province increased by 83.1% compared to the previous year, reaching $32.64 billion, while the total import and export of Foxconn Group alone amounted to $9.47 billion, accounting for nearly 30% of the province.
"Run for your life!"
When the virus began to spread, most of Foxconn's factory was blocked off by metal sheets, recalls Chen, a 35-year-old worker, who managed to escape. "People outside could not get in, people inside could not get out," she said. "I looked around for an exit like a thief."
Climbing over the railings, it took Chen over an hour to find a way out. A man used a motorbike light to guide her and told her, "Run, run for your life!"
From mid-October onwards, people were pulled away from Chen's workshop for being tested positive, and she herself went through a quarantine. In mid-October, there was a positive patient in her five-story apartment building and the whole building was pulled out of quarantine for 10 days. Work continued when they returned, and everything continued as usual, as if those 10 days did not exist.
If we don't leave now, we won't be able to leave.
"They've shut down entire towns and cities for the virus, but at at Foxconn we had to continue to work as normal. We were forced to work together even with people who tested positive," Chen said. "Everyone was quite scared and frightened."
A request for days off was denied. "It's no use, catching up with the production is always put first." Throughout October, Li, another worker, worked 21 consecutive days, and was scheduled to work overtime every weekend. "We weren't told exactly why and what we were catching up for."
Li didn't want to go home until she returned to her dorm on Oct. 30, after an evening shift. She heard workers starting to whisper: "If we don't leave now, we won't be able to leave." Some were worried that the breakout at the factory would get worse, others heard that the army was going to move in. There was even a small riot when workers tried to break out of the factory.
As for Li, after one final 10-hour-shift, she decided to packed her stuff and leave for good. It was 3 a.m. Li expected to be alone on the road in the middle of the night, but to her surprise, she was part of a wave of people walking with her all the way back to her hometown, dozens of kilometers outside of Zhengzhou.
The long march
Highway checkpoints are a major obstacle for the fleeing workers, set every five kilometers from the factory, and one must have a permit stamped by the local authority to exit. Most workers without the pass could not take public transport or enter nearby towns and cities.
But Ren, a volunteer traffic police officer, suspected that the workers must have hiked in paths over the hills and railings to enter the highways. "We don't want to chase them off, but we have to conduct things as we were told to do."
Li had also been blocked at certain checkpoints, but she managed to find some holes across the iron railings, manually made for people to pass. "Most of us don't actually know where the roads are, and we to figure it out by ourselves."
Chen's hometown is 45 kilometers away. When she made it home, she was exhausted, her feet blistered. Luckily, she said, some people had set up food and water supply points along the way.
Outside a Foxconn facility in Zhengzhou
Orange Wang/SCMP via ZUMA
Two different worlds
Many workers who made it back home found themselves facing a totally different situation: While in Foxconn, information was blocked, and quarantine policies were disorganized, they now have to deal with strict Zero-COVID policies in smaller towns.
"In Foxconn, as long as you are not COVID positive, you have to work — while in fact everyone is already a contact case, and in principle we all have to isolate." It seems to be more flexible in Foxconn, but in fact it is another kind of paralysis.
The plant had become empty and dirty, and the factory was left untouched.
There has been news of suicides and people going hungry in the factory plants, but "no one seemed to care". No one can estimate how many people have fled Foxconn, and those who remain see their workplace very differently than they once did: The plant had become empty and dirty, and the factory was left untouched, with piles of rubbish and waste piling up all over the place.
In the meantime, with the continuous loss of workers, Foxconn started to introduce a "new policy" to encourage people to return to work with "high salaries." If someone commits to working full-time with no absences, they could earn five times more than they used to.
As for those who've remained in the factory in Zhengzhou, they've been told life is now going to return to normal. Yet outside, the exodus from Foxconn carries on.
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