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Protesters attacked at Foxconn factory amid COVID curbs

November 23, 2022

Workers at Foxconn, the largest supplier for Apple's iPhone, were attacked after protesting living conditions. The company is working within a closed-loop system, in line with China's restrictive COVID-19 measures.

A group of people cross a downed fence following a protest at Foxconn's plant in Zhengzhou, China in this screen grab obtained from a video released November 23, 2022.
Foxconn workers have been protesting their conditions amid a closed-loop system to counter the spread of COVID-19Image: REUTERS

Protests over COVID-19 restrictions by workers at Foxconn's iPhone factory in central China were met with violence by security personnel, videos circulating on Chinese social media have shown.

Workers at Foxconn's Zhengzhou factory held protests on the factory campus, where they have had to stay since a closed-loop system was announced to counter the spread of COVID-19 without compromising productivity.

Videos of the violence in Zhengzhou showed masked people facing off police in protective suits. Some of the protesters are seen in the videos smashing surveillance cameras and windows on the campus. 

"The authorities have failed to prevent the news from spreading beyond Zhengzhou," said Patrick Poon, a visiting researcher at the Institute of Comparative Law At Meiji University in Japan. "It’s rare to see such strong actions by workers in recent years. I’m pretty sure the authorities would use more force to try to contain the situation. It’s concerning to imagine how much worse the will crackdown become as authorities try to censor relevant news about the protest in Zhengzhou."

The violence comes as China tightens once again its COVID-19 measures, making it the only major economy still subscribed to full lockdowns to face virus outbreaks. China's coronavirus measures have triggered domestic dissent this year.

Local authorities are continuing to stick to the “zero-Covid strategy” championed by the central government in Beijing, Poon said easing of the restrictive measures imposed on large factory compounds like the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou is unlikely. "It’s concerning to imagine how local authorities will implement the strict policies and measures that are passed down by the central government," he said.

Why did Foxconn employees protest?

Social media posts suggested the protests were against unspecified contract violations. Chants heard on some of the unverified videos depicting the protests included "give us back our pay."

In other videos, workers who were live streaming warned that police were about to break into the factory while workers tried to stop them from advancing by throwing rocks at them. Some workers said they were informed that the bonus that was originally promised to them would be delayed, and the situation in the dormitory, where workers who have been there for weeks were mixed with the newly hired workers, enhances the risk of them being exposed to the coronavirus.

A recent surge in coronavirus infections at Foxconn's Zhengzhou site prompted a wave of panic among workers, many of whom fled the site on foot last month. Walking out, employees complained of insufficient protection against the virus and lack of support for those who caught it.

A woman walks past the logo of Foxconn outside the company's building in Taipei, Taiwan November 9, 2022.
The company introduced the closed-loop system to control the virus while protecting productionImage: Ann Wang/REUTERS

Since then, the factory imposed what it calls a closed-loop system, effectively creating a bubble that forces workers to live on the site to prevent infection. The company also tried to lure workers who stayed with large bonuses and other incentives.

Aidan Chau, a researcher at China Labor Bulletin, told DW that the main problem is that closed-loop production is ineffective if it's implemented in a large factory complex like Foxconn. "The effect is to control the virus from spreading rather than protecting workers in the factory," he said.

Videos from Wednesday's protests showed workers saying bonuses they were promised have been delayed.

Yaqiu Wang, the senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the Chinese government's control of information also contributed to the exodus of Foxconn workers from the factory.

"Since the goal of the factory is to make money, the management doesn't care about workers' access to medical care or access to food. On the one hand, they want to make money and on the other, they must comply with the government's pandemic control measures. That makes the workers the ultimate victim," she told DW. 

The factory confirmed the "violence" in a statement on Wednesday, but it denied housing any newly hired, COVID-positive staff. It said workers had complained about the factory's conditions and pay.

In a statement, Foxconn said subsidies have always been performed in accordance with the contents of the contract, that employees do not live in mixed accommodation, and that the company continues to communicate well with employees and the local government, and stressed that production at the Zhengzhou plant is normal.

International firms should respect human rights

Human rights organizations say international corporations like Apple should respect human rights in their operations, regardless of China’s willingness to respect and protect those rights.

"This incident should be a red flag to Apple that they need to be conducting extra human rights due diligence to make sure that they are taking account of any human rights abuses that may be taking place," said William Nee, the research and advocacy coordinator at China Human Rights Defender (CHRD).

Nee said the series of incidents show that Chinese leader "Xi Jinping is enacting policies that he thinks will benefit China and its marginalized groups, but in fact, these policies are impacting those groups the most."

Has the situation impacted iPhone production?

Headquartered in Taipei, Taiwan, Foxconn is considered Apple's biggest iPhone supplier. Some 70% of Apple iPhones are shipped by the Chinese factory, the majority of which come from its Zhengzhou site.

After the latest COVID-19 surge, Apple acknowledged this month that production has been "temporarily impacted". It warned of a delay in new iPhone 14 deliveries due to the Zhengzhou anti-Covid measures.

China's zero COVID policy fatiguing people

William Yang contributed to this report.

rmt/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)