Hundreds of workers joined protests at Foxconn’s flagship iPhone plant in China, with some men smashing surveillance cameras and windows, footage uploaded on social media showed.
The rare scenes of open dissent in China mark an escalation of unrest at the massive factory in Zhengzhou city that has come to symbolize a dangerous build-up in frustration with the country’s ultra-harsh COVID-19 rules, as well as inept handling of the situation by the world’s largest contract manufacturer.
The trigger for the protests, which began early on Wednesday, appeared to be a plan to delay bonus payments, many of the demonstrators said on livestream feeds. The videos could not be immediately verified by Reuters.
“Give us our pay!” chanted workers who were surrounded by people in full hazmat suits, some carrying batons, according to footage from one video.
Other footage showed tear gas being deployed and workers taking down quarantine barriers.
Unrest at the Foxconn facility began in October when, after numerous outbreaks of COVID-19, the facility implemented a “closed loop system” whereby staff were forced to live and work at the facility, without any contact with the outside world.
Prior to the unrest, the facility employed 200,000 people, but many of them fled once the closed loop system began, forcing the company to try to quickly recruit new workers to maintain their production targets. Staff are reportedly forced to sleep in on-site dormitories next to workers infected with COVID-19.
In the videos, workers vented about how they were never sure if they would get meals while in quarantine, or over inadequate curbs to contain an outbreak.
“Foxconn never treats humans as humans,” said one person.
Many reasons for unrest
Those protests escalated this week into complaints over compensation, new employee Li Sanshan told The Associated Press.
Li said he quit a catering job in response to advertising that promised 25,000 yuan (about $3,500 US) for two months of work. Li, 28, said workers were angry after discovering they first had to work two additional months at lower pay before they would receive the 25,000 yuan.
“Foxconn released very tempting recruiting offers, and workers from all parts of the country came, only to find they were being made fools of,” Li said.
Experts say the protests at the facility have become a flashpoint for broader unrest.
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“It’s now evident that closed-loop production in Foxconn only helps in preventing COVID from spreading to the city, but does nothing (if not make it even worse) for the workers in the factory,” Aiden Chau of China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group, said in an email.
‘Pockets of unrest’
Jia Wang, the interim director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, says China is facing a labor crunch, and workers at the Foxconn factory and elsewhere know it.
“COVID has definitely made things more difficult in a closed loop system,” she told CBC News in an interview. “The workers are holding all the cards right now.”
Wang says it is shocking for outsiders to witness scenes of protest like that coming out of China, but the reality is that on any given day in the country, there could be hundreds of protests happening in the country that outsiders don’t hear about because the regime is able to control a lot of the information flow.
“There’s probably a lot of little pockets of unrest going on all the time.”
Foxconn said in a statement it had fulfilled its payment contracts and that reports of infected staff living on campus with new recruits were “untrue.”
“Regarding any violence, the company will continue to communicate with employees and the government to prevent similar incidents from happening again,” the company said.
Number and severity of outbreaks on the rise
Foxconn is a key supplier for Apple, manufacturing approximately 70 per cent of the company’s iPhones. The Zhengzhou plant is the largest single maker of the devices, although Foxconn has other facilities in China, Taiwan and India.
Protests have flared as the number and severity of outbreaks has risen across China, prompting authorities in areas including Beijing, the capital, to close neighborhoods and impose other restrictions that residents say go beyond what the national government allows.
More than 253,000 cases have been found in the past three weeks and the daily average is increasing, the government reported Tuesday. This week, authorities reported China’s first COVID-19 deaths in six months.
On Wednesday, the government reported 28,883 cases found over the past 24 hours, including 26,242 with no symptoms. Henan province, of which Zhengzhou is the capital, reported 851 in total.
The government will enforce its anti-COVID-19 policy while “resolutely overcoming the mindset of paralysis and laxity,” said a spokesperson for the National Health Commission, Mi Feng.
The city government of Guangzhou, the site of the biggest outbreaks, announced it opened 19 temporary hospitals with a total of almost 70,000 beds for coronavirus patients. The city announced plans last week to build hospital and quarantine facilities for 250,000 people.
Also on Wednesday, Beijing opened a hospital in an exhibition center and suspended access to Beijing International Studies University after a virus case was found there. The capital earlier closed shopping malls and office buildings and suspended access to some apartment compounds.