By Jing Xuan Teng
Zhang Yao remembers the moment he realized something had gone seriously wrong at the Chinese mega-factory where he and hundreds of thousands of other workers assembled iPhones and other high-end electronics.
In early October, supervisors suddenly warned him that 3,000 companions had been quarantined after someone tested positive for Covid-19 at the factory.
“They told us not to take off our masks,” Zhang, speaking under a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, told AFP by phone.
What followed was a week-long ordeal that included food shortages and the ever-present fear of infection, before she finally escaped on Tuesday.
Zhang’s employer, Taiwanese tech giant Foxconn, said it faces a “protracted battle” against infections and has imposed a “closed-loop” bubble around its sprawling campus in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou.
Local authorities blocked off the area surrounding the factory of Apple’s main supplier on Wednesday, but not before reports emerged of employees fleeing on foot and a lack of proper medical care at the plant.
China is the last major economy committed to a zero-Covid strategy, persisting with rapid lockdowns, mass testing and lengthy quarantines in a bid to quell emerging outbreaks.
But the new variants have tested officials’ ability to quell outbreaks and dragged down economic activity with the threat of sudden disruptions.
Multiple workers have recounted scenes of chaos and growing disorganization at Foxconn’s complex of workshops and dormitories, which form a city within a city near Zhengzhou airport.
Zhang told AFP that “positive tests and double lines (in antigen tests) had become commonplace” in his workshop before he left.
“Of course we were scared, he was so close to us.”
“People with a fever are not guaranteed to receive medicine,” another Foxconn worker, a 30-year-old man, told AFP who also asked to remain anonymous.
“We are drowning,” he said.
Those who decided to stop working were not offered food in their dormitories, Zhang said, adding that some were able to survive on personal stocks of instant noodles.
Kai, a worker at the complex who gave an interview to the state-run Sanlian Lifeweek, told the magazine that Foxconn’s “closed loop” consisted of cordoning off the roads between the dormitory complexes and the factory, and complained that he was left alone. after being thrown. in quarantine.
TikTok videos geolocated by AFP showed piles of uncollected trash outside buildings in late October, as employees wearing N95 masks crammed onto the packed shuttle buses that whisked them from dorms to their workstations.
A 27-year-old woman who works at Foxconn, who asked not to be named, told AFP that a roommate who had tested positive for covid was sent back to her bedroom on Thursday morning, crying, after she decided to hand over your notice while in quarantine. .
“Now the three of us live in the same room: one a confirmed case and two of us testing positive for the rapid test, still waiting for the results of our nucleic acid test,” the worker told AFP.
Many got so desperate late last month that they tried to walk back to their hometowns to get around the Covid transportation sidewalks.
As videos of people dragging their bags down highways and up hills spread on Chinese social media, authorities scrambled to do damage control.
The Zhengzhou city government said on Sunday it had organized special buses to take employees back to their hometowns.
The surrounding province of Henan has officially reported an increase of more than 600 Covid cases since the start of this week.
When Zhang finally tried to leave Foxconn’s campus on Tuesday, he found that the company had put up one roadblock after another.
“There were people with loudspeakers announcing the latest Foxconn policy, saying that every day there would be a bonus of 400 yuan (US$55)Zhang told AFP.
A crowd of employees gathered at a pick-up point in front of empty buses but were not allowed to enter.
The people in hazmat suits, known colloquially as “great whites” in China, claimed they had been sent by the city government.
“They tried to persuade people to stay in Zhengzhou… and avoid going home,” Zhang said.
“But when we asked to see their work ID, they had nothing to show us, so we suspected they were actually from Foxconn.”
Foxconn pointed to Wednesday’s local government lockdown orders when asked by AFP if it tried to prevent employees from leaving, without providing further response.
The company had said on Sunday that it was “providing employees with three complimentary meals a day” and cooperating with the government to provide transportation home.
Finally, the crowd of disgruntled workers who had gathered decided to take matters into their own hands and trekked more than seven kilometers on foot to the nearest freeway on-ramp.
There, more people claiming to be government officials pleaded with employees to wait for the bus.
The crowd had no choice as the road was blocked.
The buses finally arrived at 5 p.m., nearly nine hours after Zhang began his attempt to secure transportation.
“They were trying to crush us,” he said.
Back in her hometown, Zhang is now awaiting the home quarantine period required by the local government.
“All I feel is that I finally left Zhengzhou,” he told AFP.