On Friday, Zhuo decided to run away. He scaled a seven-foot wall, slipped under a fence through a hole dug by workmen who fled before him, and walked almost 15 miles before being led by a passerby.
Few signs that China is trying to escape its “zero covid” trap
“We were about 200 that night. It was like a prison escape movie,” Zhuo said by phone from a quarantine hotel near his home in Henan province. Zhuo did not give his full name for security reasons.
Foxconn is struggling to contain a worker exodus that threatens to cripple production at the huge factory housing 200,000 workers, half of the world’s supply of iPhones. The dilemma facing one of the world’s largest electronics makers also casts new light on the economic and social costs of China’s insistence on pursuing “zero covid”.
China is one of the few countries in the world to implement a zero covid policy through lockdown, mass quarantine and testing. In an attempt to mitigate its impact on an already struggling economy, authorities have ordered companies to maintain production through closed-loop management, effectively locking workers indoors to keep factories running.
After six cases were discovered in Zhengzhou, Henan province, on October 12, and 11 more the next day, the factory imposed closed-loop measures, preventing its 200,000 workers from going beyond their workstations and dormitories.
In interviews with The Washington Post, employees said they were pressured to return to work before it was clear they weren’t contagious, sent to quarantine centers that housed both confirmed cases and uninfected close contacts, and left without medicine or enough food. After years of government propaganda warning of the dangers of the virus and a lack of information from the company, workers panicked over the possibility of catching it.
Videos posted to social media showed people leaving the business on foot, walking along highways and across fields. Zhuo, administrator of a Foxconn employee chat group, estimates that up to 60,000 have left. In online discussions, people compared the walkouts to a 1942-43 famine that sent more than 1.5 million Henan residents on the road in search of food.
” They Do not Care About Us. Executives keep saying, we can’t stop production,” he said, noting that officials were worried about meeting demand for China’s upcoming ‘double eleven’ online shopping holiday, the 11th of November.
Foxconn did not respond to requests for comment. He said in public statements that the mass infection claims were rumors and that production remained “relatively stable”.
Inside the factory, workers paint a different picture. Han Xiuhong, 47, who works on packaging at the Zhengzhou factory, said she was sent to an unfinished apartment where she shared a room with seven other people, a mix of infected patients and close contacts in healthy. Food deliveries depended on how busy the volunteers were and no medicine was given. When she complained online that she was more likely to starve to death than covid, she was harassed by the building manager and the police who pressured her to delete her posts.
“I had to sleep on the floor because there weren’t enough beds. The windows were closed to prevent suicides,” she said. Her husband took to social media to ask for help, but within hours his messages had been deleted. His account on Douyin, the national version of TikTok, was suspended for posting “unverified information”.
Analysts say covid checks at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory could affect 10% of global iPhone production, while Reuters, citing an unnamed source, reported that iPhone production could drop 30% this month. In an interview with Chinese business publication Yicai, a Foxconn official said about 60% of employees in his department were still working and production could be cut in half.
Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the situation.
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The company is another example of how China’s covid controls are slowing an economy already battered by rising unemployment and a housing market slump. After the close of a key party meeting in which Chinese leader Xi Jinping secured a third term and reaffirmed his commitment to zero covid, Chinese stocks plunged and the yuan weakened to near lows. 15 years old. Economists polled by Bloomberg News expect China’s GDP growth to be below 5% for each year through 2024 due to a slow exit from covid measures.
On social media, nationalist netizens called on Foxconn, a Taiwanese company formerly known as Hon Hai Precision Industry which accounted for nearly 4% of Chinese exports in 2021, to “get out” of China. Others turned their anger on the authorities.
Zhou Mengyuan, 26, said he was among a group of 20 workers suspected of being infected and sent to quarantine in company dormitories, where they were given meals and medicine until volunteers are also infected. Deliveries stopped, he said, and sometimes they didn’t receive food for days on end.
On Sunday, he was told he would have to return to work. “They won’t let us do PCR tests, they want us back to work. Everyone in the dorm is very emotionally unstable,” he said, speaking via video from the dorm where his colleagues could be seen lying on bunk beds scanning their phones.
“Today I also have to go back to the factory. I feel hopeless. Why doesn’t the government help us? He asked.
Authorities sent a team to oversee the company’s response, and provincial governor Wang Kai visited the factory on Tuesday.
Foxconn said workers are free to leave if they feel unsafe and has set up pick-up points to take people by bus as nearby towns have organized buses to take workers home.
To motivate workers to stay, Foxconn announced up to 15,000 yuan ($2,000) in cash incentives for those who show up for work in November, according to a message on its internal app seen by The Post.
Foxconn’s situation may prompt some introspection about covid policy. The Zhengzhou Center for Disease Prevention and Control wrote in a statement on Sunday, “Covid-19 is not scary. It can be prevented and it can be treated. In Guangdong, Party Secretary Huang Kunming called for a “precision” strategy that strikes a balance between economic development and pandemic prevention.
On Monday, Foxconn released a statement saying it hopes workers will return once the situation stabilizes. Zhuo, who fled last week, may return. He found a good life at Foxconn, where he had friends and a decent salary for someone who never went to high school.
“If it hadn’t been for the epidemic, I would have stayed,” he said. “When it’s over, I could go back to work for another month. I haven’t made any money this year and need to save some for Lunar New Year.
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