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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

Around this time of year, the factories that produce Apple’s iPhones hire thousands of additional workers to meet the demand for the holiday season. While Apple is an American company and the electronics are designed in-house, the manufacturing is done overseas where labor costs are cheaper. One of the largest manufacturers for Apple’s iPhone products is Hon Hai Technology Group, better known as Foxconn, a Taiwan-based company with factories in several countries, including mainland China. One of its largest facilities is in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province — dubbed “iPhone City” by the locals.

Thus the Zhengzhou Foxconn factory was slated to make 80% of the iPhone 14 models and 85% of the iPhone Pro models before the end of this year. However, due to China’s zero-Covid policy, exasperated Foxconn workers began leaving. Apple has since announced that shipments of the iPhone 14 Pro will be lower than expected. Foxconn has shifted some of its iPhone manufacturing to plants in India, in hopes of making up for the losses.

How fear drove the Foxconn walkout

In late October, thousands of Foxconn employees walked off the campus at which they had been living for the previous several weeks in a “closed loop system,” intended to curb the spread of Covid.

The walkout is perhaps not best understood as a protest against lack of freedom. Rather, the messaging from Beijing instilled a mindset of fear of the virus — by exaggerating how deadly it can be — and stigmatized people who become infected. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Wenxin Fan and Selina Cheng:

Central to China’s justification for sticking with the policy — and the sweeping lockdowns, mass testing and compulsory isolation it requires — is that the virus is too deadly to be allowed to spread. Fear of Covid is now deeply rooted in a population that has been shielded from the virus — and from any robust, open debate on how to deal with it due to restrictions on free speech.

Wenxin Fan, Selina Cheng, “Apple iPhone Assembler Tried to Ease Worker Fears about Covid—It Led to a Tighter Lockdown” at Wall Street Journal (November 8, 2022)

Zero-Covid measures only make sense if the virus is truly dangerous, but factories that wish to remain in operation must counter that message by saying that, nonetheless, it is safe for employees to go back to work. As CNN’s Nectar Gan notes, China is thus caught in a zero-Covid trap of its own making.

On October 8, several COVID-19 cases were reported among workers at the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou, which had been dealing with a city-wide outbreak at the time. In adherence to China’s zero-Covid policy, local authorities told the factory to go into the “closed loop system,” similar to what Olympic athletes had to endure. Foxconn workers were bused from their on-campus dormitories to their factory jobs and back, without contact with the outside world. All public gathering places on the Foxconn campus were closed, including vending machines and dining halls. This allowed the factories to continue to operate while still isolating potential cases of Covid-19. But it also meant that employees who lived off campus could not return home.

Foxconn workers posted on social media that, as had happened Shanghai and in other locked down venues, food, water, and other necessities were in short supply. Some workers had to walk half an hour across campus to pick up their food and carry it back to their dorm. As more cases were identified, rumors circulated that 8 people were left for dead in one apartment. On October 28, many Foxconn workers decided to make their escape.

The background to “The Great Escape”

Foxconn workers sometimes slept on the factory floor if a section was locked down or everyone needed to be tested. As a result, many workers saw close contacts taken to quarantine, but then let free to work again, causing them to doubt whether the virus was being controlled. Additionally, Foxconn did not always report the actual numbers of cases and, when it did, workers assumed that the number was too low, based on their observations.

A production-line manager told the Wall Street Journal that his workers began to suspect that the company was more focused on keeping the factory operational than enforcing pandemic controls that would keep employees safe from a virus that they believed was deadly. Many even suspected that Foxconn just wanted workers to get the virus so they would develop herd immunity.

Then on October 28, many Foxconn workers packed their belongings and left en masse, forfeiting the bonuses that they had been promised for working until November 11. Several were seen trekking through fields and walking several miles (up to 60 miles) in the cold to get away from the Covid outbreak and go home. They had to avoid public transportation because their Health Codes were “yellow” meaning that they had come in contact with someone with Covid-19. “Yellow” also meant they could not go into grocery stores, restaurants, or any public places. Mind Matters News covered a number of these events at the time.

Several truck drivers gave Foxconn workers rides back home, risking that their own Health Codes would turn yellow. People also left supplies along the route for the Foxconn workers. But their actions were not motivated only by kindness: If workers came to their villages to find food, their presence would turn everyone’s Health Code yellow. Some dubbed the trek “the 1942” after the Henan famine of that year.

Foxconn tried to appease the workers by raising wages by 36% and by offering a bus ride home. But that strategy was complicated by the number of exiting workers — and by local authorities. In compliance with Apple’s supplier code of conduct, the company did not prohibit workers from leaving if they wanted to — at least until the plant had to go on lockdown.

In response to the Foxconn workers leaving and Covid cases increasing, authorities placed the plant in a week-long lockdown and all flights in the Zhengzhou Airport Economy Zone were canceled, beginning November 2.

Foxconn reassured reporters that Apple phone shipments would not be affected by its worker shortage; however, on November 6, Apple announced that its iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max would be in short supply due to Covid restrictions at the Zhengzhou Foxconn plant.

We can deduce that there is a continuing worker shortage from a recent Apple Insider story. It reports that China has asked former and retired members of the People’s Liberation Army to fill in at the Foxconn plant to help fulfill iPhone production, while Apple has encouraged its suppliers to focus on locations outside of China. As noted earlier, Foxconn will up production at its non-China locations, including India.

When Propaganda Backfires

People vary in their responses to fear. One 21-year-old worker refused to leave his dormitory on the Foxconn campus, saying that it’s too dangerous to go into work because he doesn’t know who has Covid and who doesn’t and doubts the company is being forthright with the numbers. His views are based on Beijing’s messaging that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is too “potent” to permit any loosening of zero-Covid restrictions, leaving businesses like Foxconn in the awkward position of both convincing employees that it is safe to come to work while also adhering to local zero-Covid laws.

Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, told CNN: “Authorities have demonized Covid, exaggerating its severity and mortality rate and talking up long-Covid symptoms. Many ordinary people are still very afraid of the virus, with recovered Covid patients suffering from severe discrimination and stigmatization.”

Jin points out that, rather than focusing on lockdowns, testing, and contact tracing, Beijing could instead prepare for outbreaks by approving effective vaccines, allowing healthy people to recover at home instead of quarantine centers, and focusing on support for the elderly who really are at risk.

Notably, Beijing has not approved the mRNA vaccines because they were developed in Western countries. For example, in 2021, Foxconn partnered with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp in Taiwan to purchase 10 million doses of BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccines from Germany for the Taiwanese people. However, the deal was blocked by Beijing in a political move to pressure Taiwan.

Note: From Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct:

“Supplier shall not impose unreasonable movement restrictions within the workplace or upon entering or exiting company-provided facilities” (Page 16)

“Supplier shall not confine or restrict Worker’s freedom of movement inside the place of production or Supplier-provided facilities, including access to drinking water and the Worker’s Dormitory room, except where necessary for Worker safety and permitted by Applicable Laws and Regulations.” (Page 17)

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

China’s Foxconn Walkout: How Fear Messaging Can Backfire