The story so far:
Videos on Chinese social media on November 23 showed hundreds of workers protesting and clashing with police at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, in central China’s Henan province. The videos showed violent clashes between workers and thousands of hazmat-clad police deployed at the facility, where workers have been, for several weeks, protesting living conditions and delays in pay amid a COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown. The continuing unrest at the plant has turned the spotlight on China’s “zero-COVID” policy and the impact on both workers’ conditions and global supply chains as the world’s second-largest economy continues with stringent COVID-19 measures.
Zhengzhou, where Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn established the world’s largest iPhone assembly facility, has been dealing with a wave of COVID-19 cases since September. Reports in October said an outbreak at the Foxconn facility led to workers being locked down in dormitories for several weeks. Dramatic images in late-October showed some workers climbing the walls of the factories to escape the lockdown and walking back to their hometowns along highways, reminiscent of the migrant worker exodus seen during India’s lockdown in March 2020.
With workers leaving, the local government has sought to hire hundreds of replacements, with reports in the Chinese media saying as many as one lakh new workers are being recruited to ensure Apple’s supply chain remains undisrupted. The latest protests appear to have been carried out by some of the new recruits, who have, in videos, complained that they were denied the payments promised. Some have also complained of conditions in the factory and alleged they were not separated from COVID-19 positive cases.
The Chinese government has cracked down forcefully on the protesters, and videos on November 23 showed thousands of riot police, all clad in white hazmat suits, surrounding the facility and clashing with workers. Some clips showed the white-clad security personnel beating up and kicking workers. Videos were being live streamed on Chinese social media websites by some of the protesters, before being taken down.
The response has been in keeping with the harsh enforcement of COVID-19 lockdowns across China. Just this week, there were also clashes between hazmat-clad police and people protesting lockdowns in southern Guangdong province, underlining growing public discontent at the continuing lockdowns as part of the “zero-COVID” policy three years into the pandemic.
Foxconn, in a statement, denied the workers’ claims, saying it had fulfilled contracts and that allegations of workers not being separated from COVID-19 cases were “untrue”. Apple said, in a statement, it had “Apple team members on the ground at our supplier Foxconn’s Zhengzhou facility” and was “reviewing the situation and working closely with Foxconn to ensure their employees’ concerns are addressed.” On November 23, reports said Foxconn would offer a payment for workers to leave, suggesting it wanted the recently arrived replacements, who have been involved in the protests, to leave the facility and to find new hires.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak in Zhengzhou, Apple has expressed concerns that its iPhone 14 shipments will be hit ahead of the key holiday season in the U.S., when orders are likely to surge. Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant employed two lakh workers and was the biggest for Apple anywhere in the world.
Reuters had reported in October that Apple was already bracing for disruptions, even prior to the latest protests. With the departing new workers, the facility will likely take weeks to return to full capacity, although Foxconn said it was looking to offset disruptions by ramping up production in other facilities.
Foxconn produces around 70% of Apple’s iPhones. Reuters reported that while the Taiwanese firm is also looking to up production in India, it is still largely reliant on the Zhengzhou factory for assembly of most of its global output.