For more than two weeks Zhuo, who works on Foxconn’s iPhone assembly line in Zhengzhou, was trapped inside the sprawling campus while the company battled an outbreak of the coronavirus in the middle of its peak production season.
On Friday, Zhuo decided to make a run for it. He climbed a seven-foot wall, ducked under a fence through a hole already dug out by workers who fled before him and walked almost 15 miles before getting a ride from a passerby.
“There were around 200 of us that evening. It was like a prison break movie,” Zhuo said by phone from a quarantine hotel near his home in Henan province. Zhuo did not give his full name out of security concerns.
Foxconn is struggling to contain an exodus of workers that threatens to hurt output at the massive plant housing 200,000 workers making half the global supply of iPhones. The dilemma facing one of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers also casts a new spotlight on the economic and social costs of China’s insistence on pursuing “zero covid.”
China is one of the few countries left in the world implementing a zero-covid policy through lockdowns, mass quarantine and testing. In an attempt to lessen its impact on an already battered economy, authorities have instructed companies to maintain production through “closed loop” management, effectively locking workers inside to keep the factories going.
After six cases were found in Zhengzhou in the central province of Henan on Oct. 12, and 11 the next day, the factory suddenly imposed closed loop measures, restricting its 200,000 workers from going beyond their work stations and dormitories.
In interviews with the Washington Post, workers said they were pushed to go back to work before it was clear they were not 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 at the plant panicked over the possibility of catching it.
Videos posted on social media showed workers leaving the company by foot, walking along highways and across fields. Zhuo, an administrator of a chat group of Foxconn staff, estimates that as many as 60,000 have left. In online discussions, people compared the walkouts to a famine in 1942-1943 that sent over 1.5 million Henan residents on the road in search of food.
“They don’t care about us. The leaders keep saying, we cannot cease production,” he said, noting that managers were concerned about meeting demand for China’s upcoming “double eleven” online shopping holiday on Nov. 11.
Foxconn did not respond to requests for comment. It has said in public statements that claims of mass infection were rumors and that production has remained “relatively stable.”
Inside the factory workers paint a different picture. Han Xiuhong, 47, who works on packaging at the Zhengzhou plant, was sent to an unfinished apartment where she shared a room with seven others, a mix of infected patients and healthy close contacts. Food deliveries depended on how busy the volunteers were and no medicine was given. When she complained online that she was more likely to die from starvation than covid, she was harassed by the building manager and police who pressured her to delete her posts.
“I had to sleep on the floor because there were not enough beds. The windows were shuttered to prevent suicides,” she said. Her husband took to social media to ask for help but within hours his posts had been erased. His account on Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok, was suspended for publishing “unverified information.”
Analysts estimate the covid controls in Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant could affect 10 percent of global iPhone production while Reuters, citing an unnamed source, reported that the output of iPhones could fall 30 percent this month. In an interview with the Chinese business publication Yicai, a Foxconn manager said about 60 percent of staff in his department were still working and output could be cut by half.
The company is yet another example of how China’s covid controls are slowing an economy already battered by rising unemployment and a property market crisis. After the close of a key party meeting where China’s leader Xi Jinping secured a third term and reaffirmed commitment to zero covid, Chinese stocks plunged while the yuan weakened to an almost 15-year low. Economists polled by Bloomberg expect China’s GDP growth to be less than 5 percent for each year through 2024 as a result of a slow exit from covid measures.
On social media, nationalist Internet users called for Foxconn, a Taiwanese company that accounted for almost 4 percent of China’s exports in 2021, to “get out” of China. Others turned their anger toward authorities.
After testing positive for the virus, Zhou Mengyuan, 26, was among a group of 20 workers sent to quarantine in company dormitories where they were given meals and medication until volunteers also became infected. The deliveries stopped and sometimes they were not given food for entire days.
On Sunday, he was told he would have to go back to work. “They won’t let us do PCR tests, they want us to go back to work. Everyone in the dorm is very emotionally unstable,” he said, speaking by video from the dorm where his coworkers could be seen lying on bunk beds swiping on their phones.
“Today I am also being forced to go back to the factory. I feel hopeless. Why is the government not helping us?” he asked.
Authorities have sent a working team to oversee the company’s response while the provincial governor Wang Kai visited the factory on Tuesday.
Foxconn has said that workers are free to leave if they feel unsafe and has set up pick up points to bus people out as nearby cities have arranged buses to take workers home.
To motivate the workers to stay, Foxconn announced up to 15,000 yuan ($2,000) of cash incentives for those who show up for work in November, according to a post on its internal app seen by The Post.
The Foxconn situation may be prompting some introspection over the covid policy. Zhengzhou’s Disease Prevention and Control Center 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 strategy focused on “precision” that strikes a balance between economic development and pandemic prevention.
On Monday, Foxconn issued a statement saying that it hopes workers will come back once the situation has stabilized. Zhuo, who ran away 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 not for the outbreak, I would have stayed,” he said. “When this is over, I might go back and work for another month. I haven’t made any money this year and need to save some for the Lunar New Year.”