As a wave of discontent and fear spread over the COVID curbs inside Zhengzhou Foxconn, many workers decided to flee the factory to avoid being forced into quarantine with insufficient necessities. As a result, a large exodus of workers emerged. Videos showing massive workers returning to their hometowns on foot have been filling social media these two weeks. According to The Washington Post, one Foxconn employee estimated that around 60,000 workers have left.
Quelling the discontent among Foxconn workers and retaining the remaining workers, Foxconn has quadrupled bonuses on offer for workers. The company began paying workers $55 a day, announced by the official. Meanwhile, in order to ease the public outrage mounted on various social media platforms, Foxcoon stopped restricting workers to leave. Responding to queries from Reuters, Foxconn replied: “The government agreed to resume dine-in meals to improve the convenience and satisfaction of employees’ lives … for some employees who want to return home, the (plant) is cooperating with the government to organize personnel and vehicles to provide a point-to-point orderly return service for employees from today.” Cooperating with Foxconn, Zhengzhou local officials have been drawing up plans to respond to the unrest.
Nevertheless, shortly after Foxconn and Zhengzhou officials’ announcement of ensuring Foxconn workers’ safe return to their hometown, China imposed a seven-day lockdown on the industrial park that houses the Zhengzhou Foxconn plant, imperiling any further attempts to flee. Not soon after, county governments and village cadres were deployed to help Foxconn hire new workers and persuade returned workers to go back to work for Foxconn again as Foxconn has been taking great efforts to secure the workforce to maintain the production rate.
Summary: The problematic closed-loop management at Zhengzhou Foxconn caused the skyrocketing of Covid-19 cases at the Part Zone area of the company. So far, no official data is published in terms of how many workers are infected. Many infected workers are transferred to an unfinished building in which multiple workers stay in the one room, causing cross-infection. They have been left without any medical attendance or sufficient food supply. Workers who remain at the factory have been coerced by the management to go to work despite the increasing risk of Covid-19 exposure. All the exits are blocked and some workers could only run away in despair. So far, no exact number of Covid-19 cases have been published by Foxconn. China Labor Watch demands that Zhengzhou Foxconn halt its production and stop profiting from its vulnerable workers.
The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases rebounded in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. According to the official statistics, since the beginning of the National Day holiday, the province’s number of confirmed Covid-19 cases has increased between 1 to more than a dozen cases. Required by the Zhengzhou COVID-19 Epidemic Prevention and Control Headquarters Office, at places where there are confirmed Covid-19 cases and asymptomatic infections, people must strictly follow the lockdown and control measures, staying at home and receiving door-to-door service. Except for public service enterprises that guarantee the basic life of citizens and the basic operation of the city, such as supermarkets, farmers markets, pharmacies, and medical institutions, other production and business activities shall be suspended.
Zhengzhou is Foxconn’s main base for the production of iPhones. Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory park is located in the Zhengzhou Xinzheng Comprehensive Protective Tariff Zone (郑州新郑综合保税区) near Zhengzhou Xinzheng International Airport. Facing doubts about whether Zhengzhou Foxconn can continue the production during the lockdown, Foxconn told the media on October 21 that the production line in the Zhengzhou park was operating normally and was not affected by the rebound of the epidemic.
The actual meaning of this statement, however, could only be grasped by understanding what’s facing workers at Zhengzhou Foxconn’s Port Zone park– production is going on, regardless of cross-infection and accumulating sick workers. A Zhengzhou Foxconn employee posted on social media that Covid-positive cases at the Port Zone factory could date back as early as to October 8. Later, the factory continued to let the workers tested positive of Covid-19 to live in the same dormitory rooms as workers tested negative, and both went to work as usual; no pause of production was suggested by the management. This led to the subsequent outbreak of the epidemic in the factory. On October 14, the factory began to implement “closed-loop production”; movement of workers is strictly controlled between the production line and the dormitory, and mobility between the factory and the outside area is minimized.
Controlling worker movement and ensuring production through the so-called “closed-loop production” is not Foxconn’s invention, and the concrete management policies can vary from factory to factory. Caught between the sporadic Covid-19 outbreaks, mobility control under zero-covid policy, and the demand on production, many manufacturers across the country choose closed-loop production, confining workers within the factory, asking them to commute only between the assembly line and their dormitory, minimizing their other activities and social contact. During the outbreak of the Shanghai epidemic in 2022, the State Council issued a document, stating: “In the event of an epidemic, qualified enterprises are encouraged to carry out closed-loop production to ensure their stable production, and in principle, no suspension of production is required.”
But just as the focus of zero covid policy is on the number zero, the closed loop is only a means for maintaining production; the health of workers and the safety of patients’ lives are placed in a secondary position throughout the actual quarantine, protection, and medical procedures. As early as the beginning of May, in the Shanghai factory of Taiwan’s Quanta Group, which has more than 40,000 employees, an incident occurred in which workers broke through the guard line and escaped from the factory area as a result of dissatisfaction with the strict covid control.
In Chinese covid testing terminology, single sample tube (单采管) refers to the testing method in which an oropharyngeal or nasopharyngeal swab specimen collected from 1 person is placed into one collection tube for laboratory testing. A tube which is tested positive of covid-19 indicates that the individual being collected is infected with the new coronavirus. Mixed sample tube (混采), on the other hand, is to put swab samples from multiple people into one collection tube for testing. If the testing result for a mixed tube is positive, the relevant government department will separately quarantine the 5, 10 or 20 people whose samples are in this mixed sample tube, and re-collect a single sample tube from each person for second-round testing, so as to determine which person or persons has been infected of Covid-19. Zhengzhou Foxconn adopts this testing method to screen its 300,000 employees. A Wechat record on October 17 shows that a worker in Foxconn continued to go to work after they were tested positive of covid-19.
Photo from a Weibo post on October 25, 2022
After Covid-19 broke out in the factory, Foxconn not only failed to provide proper quarantine conditions and medical treatment for employees, but also subject healthy workers to high exposure to the virus. First of all, workers who were taken away from the dormitory to the quarantine sites were left unattended and therefore had to ask for help on social media. A daughter of a Foxconn worker posted on Weibo on October 22 to ask for help for her mother. After being taken away from quarantine, her mother and co-workers were made to stay in a room that had both workers diagnosed with Covid-19 and workers with a “green code”. After all the roommates showed symptoms such as fever, cold, and breath difficulty, they did not receive any medicines or medical treatment. They could only control their fever by drinking hot water and applying a headscarf. No one has even come to conduct nucleic acid tests for them for three or four consecutive days. Another female worker, showing her work permit in front of the camera, said that she was quarantined in Foxconn’s Yukangbei (豫康北) dormitory, had a 39.3 Celsius degrees fever, but no one came to take care of her.
In addition, because no one delivered food for the quarantined workers on time, chaos happened when workers were grabbing food outside of the quarantine building. The so-called “quarantine” involved only a spatial transfer of workers from one place to another; the new location not only does not provide conditions for solo quarantine, but also lacks subsequent medical care and food distribution.
Foxconn has never released any data to the public on the exact number of infected and quarantined workers at the factory. However, the video footage and photos of Foxconn’s quarantine building made many guess it would be a 4-digit figure. A large number of employees who were either tested positive or had close contact with infected workers have been transferred by Foxconn to a building called Evergrande Future Light (恒大未来之光). China Evergrande Group has more than 700 real estate projects across the country that have been dealt but are still under construction, among which is Evergrande Future Light in Zhengzhou. So far, no official and online information is found regarding the current stage of construction of Evergrande Future Light, and several real estate sales websites show that the property will be ready to be handed over to buyers in 2023 or 2024. In other words, Evergrande Future Light, under construction, does not have habitable conditions, let alone the conditions for Covid-19 patients.
Meanwhile, workers who remain in the factory are coerced to continue to work in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak. Foxconn tried to promote employees’ “regular attendance” with attendance subsidies and rewards. But compared with the risk of their own life, the salary is not as appealing as it used to be. An internal message shows that many types of work have an attendance rate of less than 55%. A worker discloses to China Labor Watch that due to low employee attendance rate, the remaining workers of the two production lines were combined, and some production lines have been stopped. In response, Foxconn eased the quarantine and testing requirements so that more workers can stay on the production line.
Many workers have had contact with infected workers, have concerns about exposure to the virus, or feel reluctant to go to work in the chaotic situation, but they were asked to continue to work merely based on a negative nucleic acid test result. Multiple sources prove that if a worker is on leave for 3 days, Foxconn automatically terminates the employment with the worker.
Starting October 19th, Zhengzhou Foxconn closed its dining area, asking workers to have dinner in the dormitory. The staff lunch is distributed at the factory exit, which means that if the worker stays in the dormitory and does not go to work, they cannot receive the staff meal. It takes workers about half an hour to commute by shuttle bus between the dormitory and the production line. Since the dining hall closed, workers have been taking 2 trips a day between the factory and the dormitory and bear extra risk from crowded commutes. As a result, at least half of their lunch break time needs to be spent on commuting.
What’s worse, sanitation at the dormitory area cannot keep up to the pace of the accumulating trash, causing worrisome sanitary conditions that only make it even more unsafe for workers to live, not to mention quarantine.
Attendance is the determining factor of the wage of electronics workers. For an electronics factory worker, only by maintaining attendance days can they receive the signing bonus (返费) or the “price difference” part of the salary. The signing bonus is originally the remuneration paid by the factory to the labor dispatch agencies that hire workers to work at Foxconn. But in order to recruit workers, the dispatch agencies use a portion of that remuneration as an extra bonus paid to the dispatched workers, and this part of the money is called a signing bonus. To get this bonus, usually ranging from several thousand to over ten thousand yuan, workers need to meet a certain number of working days for more than three months. However, if the workers’ leave or absenteeism exceeds a certain limit, the workers will either not be able to get the bonus, or they will need to delay leaving the factory. For workers who receive hourly rated wages, the “price difference” is the wages they receive for working overtime outside the contracted hours. This part of the salary will be higher than the basic salary, but likewise, there are restrictions in terms of working hours and leave days. In order to accumulate hours of attendance, many workers choose to continue to work, despite being surrounded by increasing positive Covid cases, until they themselves are infected.
Many workers, however, no longer want to continue to work amid the chaos and just want to stay safe. Unfortunately, there is no way to leave Foxconn; the “closed loop” management means that employees cannot leave the port area where Foxconn is located without special authorization. Some employees eventually gave up their wages and chose to flee the factory.
The message earlier also showed that part of the pressure on Foxconn to rush work “came from Apple.” The Zhengzhou plant has more than 90 production lines and about 350,000 workers. It is also Foxconn’s main manufacturing base for Apple’s iPhones, which account for half of global iPhone sales. Right now is the peak production season when Foxconn is rushing to work on Apple’s latest product, the iPhone 14. Foxconn’s September revenue totaled $25.9 billion, a record high for the company. An analyst pointed out that this record revenue was due to the surge in demand for Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max models.
Facing the controversy, Foxconn Technology Group responded by saying that the 20,000 infected workers at Foxconn is misinformation, adding that “caring for employees is the primary principle of the group.” This clarification, however, did not address the actual number of infections. Nor was any mention of the problems of concern to the workers, including cross-infection, insufficient food supply and medical treatment, and coercion on work.
In 2019, a factory investigation conducted by China Labor Watch shows that labor rights abuses are rampant at Zhengzhou Foxconn. The factory hired 4 times more dispatch workers than the legal maximum, illegally recruited student workers through dispatch agencies, forced teenagers to work overtime during the peak season, failed to pay social insurance, and lacked sufficient labor protection gears. This time, the abusive treatment and neglect that workers experience at Foxconn’s factory and the quarantine sites seem to prove again that Foxconn values production over life.
China Labor Watch demands that Zhengzhou Foxconn halt its production that subject employees to constant life risk, and:
- Stop forcing workers to work through the restriction of movement, threat of employment termination, monopoly over food supply, or any other means. Workers who are not willing to go to work should never be forced to do so.
- Address Covid-19 cross infection and minimize the exposure risk at dormitories and quarantine sites. Provide workers with sufficient medicines, medical care and food supply. No rotten food should be provided to any workers.
- Negotiate with local governments to assist stranded workers in leaving the factory and Zhengzhou City.
- Update the public with the actual Covid-19 conditions in the Port Zone area, including the number of diagnosed Covid-19 cases, measures the company takes to handle the problems of forced labor, cross-infection, neglect of sick employees, food and medical provision, dormitory sanitation, among others.
China Labor Watch urges Apple Inc. to fulfill its corporate social responsibility by stopping pressuring Zhengzhou Foxconn on the production of iPhone 14 or any other products in the midst of Covid-19 outbreak, inspecting the reality of working and living conditions at Zhengzhou Foxconn, and working with Foxconn on providing emergency aid to the workers in need.