At the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou where thousands of employees walked out on October 29, protests broke out on November 23. They were led by new hires staying on a campus dormitory after they learned that they would have to work an additional two months at lower pay before they receive their promised bonuses for coming to Foxconn to cover for the October exodus. Additionally, workers complained of inadequate food and fear of Covid exposure.
Workers were offered 25,000 yuan (US$3,500) for two months of work, a 50% increase on the posted maximum wage. When they learned of changes in their agreement, employees at the dorm responded by pulling down outdoor tents (for Covid testing) and destroying a surveillance camera. Police dressed in PPE (personal protection gear) some from other districts, were witnessed using tear gas and beating protesters.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the videos uploaded to social media were geotagged at the Foxconn Zhengzhou location and eyewitnesses say that the protests became violent when police intervened. According to the Journal, one video showed over a dozen police and men in PPE repeatedly punching and beating a man with a baton.
A source who has worked in workplace compliance in China advises Mind Matters News that both Foxconn’s Code of Conduct and China’s labor laws permit workers to leave their jobs. That calls into question the reason for riot police in the videos. Additionally, the police were wearing protective equipment that is usually reserved for healthcare workers.
Foxconn has called the change in the agreed pay a “technical error” stating that it was a data input problem. The company has guaranteed that the employees will be paid according to the agreed-upon terms.
Poor communication by both the local government and Foxconn contributed to the problems, leaving employees guessing at the ways they are being protected and compensated for working under the “closed-loop” factory conditions. A researcher at China’s Labor Bulletin told DW that the closed-loop system for containing COVID is ineffective in a factory as complex as Foxconn.
The Foxconn Problem Is a Microcosm of a Bigger Problem
Several news outlets have been highlighting the impact the Foxconn “great escape” and the Foxconn protests will have on iPhone 14 sales during the holiday season. However, the unethical work conditions for employees under China’s zero-Covid rules would be a problem whether Foxconn could fulfill 100% of Apple’s iPhone orders or not. The loss in money and productivity only serves to quantify the issue.
Either the virus is so bad that Beijing is justified in its heavy-handed Covid measures 3 years after the outbreak occurred in Wuhan, or the virus is manageable enough that daily testing, lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and closed-loop work conditions are no longer necessary.
In other words, Beijing cannot have it both ways. And neither can Apple and other tech companies that work with Foxconn’s China locations. Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct specifically addresses many of the issues they have encountered with Foxconn.
Apple reportedly has staff at the Zhengzhou plant to oversee worker conditions, but some blame Apple for the chaos at Foxconn:
The exodus from the site in October and protests on Tuesday were not a coincidence,” said Aiden Chow, a researcher for rights group China Labor Bulletin. They showed China’s workers and their unions are unable to protect their rights, he said, adding that Apple had consistently failed to live up to its responsibilities as a global leader at the top of the supply chain.
Selina Cheng and Wenxin Fan report much the same thing at the Wall Street Journal.
William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at China Human Rights Defender, told DW that this incident should be a red flag to Apple to make sure the company is doing its due diligence to address human rights abuses “regardless of China’s willingness to respect and protect those rights.”
Foxconn has manufacturing plants around the world, with several located in mainland China. Apple has worked with Foxconn since 2007 with Zhengzhou as its largest campus for Apple products. The China campuses, however, have been reported as having several incidences of unethical workplace practices, such as forced overtime, hiring underage employees, and poor dormitory conditions.
The Chinese people are becoming more and more frustrated with Beijing’s zero-Covid policies. Foxconn serves as a microcosm of the growing frustration at the government’s inability to stamp out the virus even when it exercises extreme control over people’s lives.
You may also wish to read: China’s Foxconn walkout: How fear messaging can backfire. Workers were caught in a conflict between unrealistic COVID Zero messaging from the government and seasonal performance demands from the employer. A Chinese virologist points out that, rather than focusing on lockdowns, testing, and contact tracing, Beijing could have focused on protecting the most vulnerable.