An exodus of young workers fleeing a coronavirus outbreak at the Zhengzhou Foxconn factory on foot went viral this past weekend. Zhengzhou, Henan’s capital, has been dealing with a coronavirus outbreak since October 8. More than 200,000 workers are employed by the Foxconn factory campus, which accounts for up to 85% of the world’s iPhone assembly capacity. Online reports claimed that 20,000 of Foxconn’s employees had been infected by the virus. The factory denied those reports, but stories of hunger under lockdown and fear of infection along the assembly line began to leak out of the plant’s massive dormitories. At The Wall Street Journal, Wenxin Fan and Selina Cheng interviewed workers at the plant whose stories of chaos and uncertainty undermined Foxconn’s claims that the outbreak at the plant was both limited and controlled:
“It’s too dangerous to go to work,” a 21-year-old worker who has been confined to his dorm told The Wall Street Journal, saying that he was skeptical about the company’s claim that there was a low level of infections at the plant.
[…] Another Foxconn employee said most of his dozen-strong team of night-shift workers had either been taken to a quarantine facility or had refused to return to work. Every night, he said, he saw workers covered in protective gear waiting to be taken away by bus.
[…] Around 10 days ago, almost 300 employees from Foxconn suppliers were asked to move out of their dormitories and sleep in the factory, one of them said.
In photos he shared with the Journal, people slept on bedding and pillows placed on metal bed frames, under white fluorescent lights suspended from the hangar-like roof. Hygiene has become a problem, he said. Still, he said he isn’t supposed to leave the plant—and has nowhere to go if he did. [Source]
The outbreak pushed hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of employees to flee the factory. Bloomberg interviewed one worker, Dong Wanwan, who walked 25 miles with her luggage in tow to escape the outbreak at the factory. Dong said locals left snacks and water along the route for fleeing workers, and that she was able to hitch a ride on the back of a flatbed truck for part of the journey. The New York Times interviewed the daughter of another Foxconn employee who told the paper that her mother had trekked 38 miles home after a colleague she had been placed in quarantine with tested positive for the virus. At The Washington Post, Lily Kuo and Lyric Li reported on workers’ “prison break” escapes from the factory and the inhumane conditions in factory-mandated quarantine:
On Friday, Zhuo decided to make a run for it. He climbed a seven-foot wall, ducked under a fence through a hole dug out by workers who fled before him and walked almost 15 miles before getting a ride from a passerby.
“There were around 200 of us that evening. It was like a prison break movie,” Zhuo said by phone from a quarantine hotel near his home in Henan province. Zhuo did not give his full name out of security concerns.
[…] Han Xiuhong, 47, who works on packaging at the Zhengzhou plant, said she was sent to an unfinished apartment where she shared a room with seven others, a mix of infected patients and healthy close contacts. Food deliveries depended on how busy the volunteers were, and no medicine was given. When she complained online that she was more likely to die of starvation than covid, she was harassed by the building manager and police, who pressured her to delete her posts.
“I had to sleep on the floor because there were not enough beds. The windows were shuttered to prevent suicides,” she said. Her husband took to social media to ask for help, but within hours, his posts had been erased. His account on Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok, was suspended for publishing “unverified information.” [Source]
Videos and images of the Foxconn workers’ flight went viral on Chinese social media, reaching the top of Weibo’s trending search results. CDT Chinese compiled many of the videos and images that went viral:
Visuals of migrant workers working at Foxconn in Zhengzhou fleeing the factory on foot on the highway are circulating on social media. There are about 300k workers here and 20k are rumoured to have tested positive, which local authorities denied. pic.twitter.com/mu02MDvzna
— Chu Yang (@ChuYang_Journ) October 30, 2022
Zhengzhou Foxconn hires around 300k workers and makes half of the world's iPhones. amidst covid lockdown chaos & food shortage, videos on douyin show many migrant workers from within Henan province are returning home on foot… as no public transport is available due to lockdown pic.twitter.com/JrSshy4Xbd
— Chenchen Zhang 🤦🏻♀️ (@chenchenzh) October 30, 2022
Extraordinary image from Henan, China, reminiscent of migrant worker exodus during India's 2020 lockdown, shows desperate workers walking home after fleeing Foxconn factory lockdown.
Sign above highway reads: "Welcome the 20th Party Congress, Always walk with the Party…" pic.twitter.com/WSVeeUKopT
— Ananth Krishnan (@ananthkrishnan) October 31, 2022
Many commenters likened the scenes to the Henan famine of the early 1940s, in which millions starved and millions more fled on foot in search of food. CDT has translated a selection of comments, collected from across the internet, about this modern-day exodus:
@寒塘梦影：What’s playing out on the Central Plain: “Back to 1942” or “Home Coming”?
@玥揽星河_：It’s as if we’re no longer in 2022, but have returned to 1942. This is more or less unrelated to [Foxconn], but we don’t dare say what it is related to.
@顿悟书生：I wonder if everything that has gone down at the Zhengzhou Foxconn will ever be turned into a movie like “Back to 1942.” It could be titled “2022.” Oh, but wait, Feng Xiaogang [the director of “Back to 1942”] has already run off.
@凌晨4点的洛杉矶是我：How is it they never choose someone from the lower classes to speak at those meetings where they hand out fake honors? The current government only makes public its triumphs, never its mishaps.
@医者思远：No number of official statements can cover up the stupidity of their previous decisions: denying boxed meals to those who weren’t working, closing the cafeteria, shutting down the general store—how were their workers supposed to survive? They even forced some people to work while sick. They didn’t care. They ignored workers’ reasonable demands. And it was only after workers fell into despair and started to flee that it occurred to them to make some changes. You tell me: is it too little, too late?
@小面条爱吃面条：They’re always blabbing on and on about how they work “for the People.” So why is it that when the people cry out for help, they censor them?
@杨某某爱吃小鱼干：Shameless. When the news leaked about a fortnight ago, they called it rumor-mongering. Now that thousands have left, fleeing hunger, they say they’re dispatching a task force. Have they no shame? [Chinese]
On Sunday, in the aftermath of the viral videos, the Zhengzhou city government dispatched a task force to investigate the factory, while Foxconn issued statements promising safe transportation home for workers who chose to leave, and a sanitized environment for those who chose to stay. But on November 2, Zhengzhou announced that the area around the plant would be placed under “silent management,” a form of lockdown, effective immediately and lasting until November 9. It is unclear whether workers who wish to leave will still be granted the opportunity. In an effort to retain more of its workforce, Foxconn has quadrupled bonuses for workers who opt to remain in the factory.
This is not the first time Foxconn has courted controversy about its treatment of workers. Over the summer, a number of media outlets published exposés on discrimination by large corporations, including Foxconn, against workers who had ever tested positive for COVID. Over the years, there have been concerns about wage and hour exploitation, serious accidents, underage workers, and worker suicides. In 2010, a rash of worker suicides drew international attention to working conditions at the company’s Shenzhen industrial park.
Foxconn is not the only high-profile corporation dealing with outbreaks. On Monday, Shanghai Disney instituted a snap temporary lockdown, locking guests inside the park inside until they had all been tested for COVID.
Shanghai's Disney Resort abruptly suspended operations to comply with COVID prevention measures, with all visitors at the time of the announcement directed to stay in the park until they returned a negative test for the virus https://t.co/yChT5Ikh5H pic.twitter.com/U1lVzjw9Sk
— Reuters (@Reuters) November 1, 2022