Inside a Chinese iPhone Plant, Foxconn Grapples With Covid Chaos

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The group is battling to contain a week-long Covid-19 outbreak at an iPhone factory in central China, trying to appease scared and frustrated workers during a crucial period for smartphone orders.

At Foxconn’s main location in Zhengzhou, the world’s largest assembly site for Apple Inc

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iPhones, hundreds of thousands of workers have been put under a closed loop system for almost two weeks. They are largely closed off from the outside world, only allowed to move between their dormitories or houses and the production line.

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Many people said they were locked in their quarters for days and that the distribution of food and other essentials was chaotic. Many others say they are too afraid to continue working because of the risk of infection.

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Foxconn on Wednesday denied what it said were online rumors that 20,000 cases had been detected at the site and said that for the “small number of employees affected by the pandemic,” it is providing necessary supplies.

“An epidemic suddenly disrupts our normal life,” Foxconn said Friday in a post to its workers on WeChat.,

a social media platform. “An orderly progress in both pandemic prevention and production depends on the efforts of all employees,” he said. He outlined plans to ensure adequate food supplies and mental well-being support and promised to respond to workers’ concerns.

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Foxconn did not respond to questions about workers’ details of the situation at the site. Earlier when asked about the situation, the company referred to its Wednesday statement as well as its Friday post on WeChat.

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“It’s too dangerous to go to work,” a 21-year-old worker locked in his dormitory told The Wall Street Journal, saying he was skeptical of the company’s claim that there was a low level of infection at the plant. .

The chaos at Foxconn is the latest example of the economic and societal toll of China’s rigid pandemic control policies—including quick and rapid lockdowns, mass testing and mandatory quarantines to quell the virus whenever it emerges. While Beijing says the virus is too potent to allow any relaxation of its zero-Covid policy, businesses must convince employees that there is little risk of coming to work when there are signs of an outbreak.

The Zhengzhou flare-up-95 cases registered in the city in the past four days-began in early October, after people returned from other parts of the country from a national holiday week. At the first sign of Covid in the city, officials locked down some districts and began mass testing to eradicate the virus before it took hold among Zhengzhou’s 12.7 million residents. As a major employer, Foxconn joined the campaign.

When more infections emerged in the middle of the month, Foxconn sought to maintain production by creating a “bubble” around its operations to reduce the risk of exposure, a practice now common among large manufacturers in China to continue their business. during a local epidemic.

Foxconn says it employs as many as 300,000 workers in Zhengzhou. Analysts estimate that the company produces half or more of Apple’s smartphones in the city, making it crucial to deliver iPhones to consumers, including for the upcoming winter holiday season when demand for the handsets typically peaks. sting

Foxconn, in its statement on Wednesday, said that production at the site is “relatively stable” and that it is sticking to its operating outlook for the current season as the impact of the epidemic is controlled. It is set to report quarterly results on November 10.

Apple, in its quarterly earnings release Thursday, did not mention the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou. Its chief financial officer said that supplies of the new iPhone 14 Pro models were constrained by high demand.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment on conditions at the Foxconn factory.

Some workers interviewed by the Journal said many colleagues refused to return to the production lines. Others simply left, they said, sometimes abandoning their belongings.

Another Foxconn employee said most of his team of a dozen silk workers were either taken to a quarantine facility or refused to return to work. Every night, he said, he saw workers covered in protective gear waiting to get on the bus.

“I don’t know who around me is a positive case,” said the worker, who was locked in his dormitory for a few days. “I’d better stay in the dorm.”

Two of the workers said with many people trapped inside their neighborhoods, sent to quarantine centers or simply absent from work, the speed of production on some assembly lines has slowed.

Foxconn created incentives to maintain production, according to the company’s notice Friday.

Anyone who turns up for work will get free food and a daily bonus, he said. People who turn up every weekday from October 26 to November 11 will get an award of 1,500 yuan, or about $200.

The 21-year-old employee who spoke to the Journal and worked on an assembly line that makes an older version of the iPhone, said he has been locked out of his quarters since Oct. 17, along with thousands of others.

In the days that followed, food deliveries were delayed and trash was left unattended in the hallways, piling up on the ground floor as more dormitories closed, he said.

A worker’s daughter said her mother was put in the same dormitory as some who tested positive. Some other workers made similar complaints.

About 10 days ago, nearly 300 employees from Foxconn suppliers were asked to move out of their dormitories and sleep in the factory, one of them said.

In the photo he shared with the newspaper, people slept on beds with pillows placed on metal bed frames, under white fluorescent lights suspended from the hangar-like roof. Hygiene has become an issue, he said. Still, he said he wasn’t supposed to leave the plant—and had nowhere to go if he did.

“Where can I go? Barriers are everywhere,” he said. “Every post is manned.”

Business and the pandemic

Write to Wenxin Fan at [email protected] and Selina Cheng at [email protected]

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