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Inside a Chinese iPhone plant, Foxconn is grappling with Covid chaos

Inside a Chinese iPhone plant, Foxconn is grappling with Covid chaos
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The group is scrambling to contain one Week-long Covid-19 outbreak At an iPhone factory in central China, scared and frustrated workers are trying to calm down at a critical time for smartphone orders.

Within Foxconn’s main Zhengzhou facility, the world’s largest assembly site

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iPhone, thousands of workers have been kept under a closed-loop system for almost two weeks. They are essentially closed off from the outside world, only allowed to move between their dorm or house and the production line.

Many said they were confined to their quarters for days and distribution of food and other essentials was chaotic. Others said they were afraid to continue working because of the risk of infection.

Foxconn on Wednesday denied it was online rumors that 20,000 cases had been detected at the site and said it was providing essential supplies to “a small number of employees affected by the pandemic.”

“The sudden outbreak has disrupted our normal lives,” Foxconn said in a post to its employees on Friday

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A social-media platform. “An orderly progress in both epidemic prevention and output depends on the efforts of all workers,” it said. It outlines plans to ensure proper food supply and mental well-being support, and promises to respond to workers’ concerns.

Foxconn did not respond to requests for details about the situation of the workers at the site. When asked earlier about the situation, the company referred to its Wednesday statement and Friday post on WeChat.

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“It’s too dangerous to go to work,” a 21-year-old worker confined to his dorm told The Wall Street Journal, adding that he was skeptical of the company’s claims that infection levels at the plant were low. .

Disruption at Foxconn is the latest example Economic and social damage from China’s strict epidemic control policies-which includes rapid and sweeping lockdowns, mass testing and mandatory quarantines to crush the virus whenever it appears. Although Beijing says the virus is too strong to allow any easing of its zero-covid policy, businesses must convince their workers that the risk of working when symptoms of an outbreak appear is low.

Zhengzhou’s outbreak—with 95 cases recorded in the city in the past four days—started in early October, after people returned from other parts of the country from a week-long national holiday. At the first sign of Covid in the city, officials locked down some districts and began mass testing to stamp out the virus before it set foot among Zhengzhou’s 12.7 million residents. As a major employer, Foxconn joined the campaign.

When more infections emerged at Foxconn in the interim, the company tried to maintain output by creating a “bubble” around its operations to reduce the risk of exposure. A practice now common among China’s major manufacturers to continue their business during local outbreaks.

Foxconn said it employs 300,000 workers in Zhengzhou. Analysts speculate Half or more of Apple’s smartphones are made in the cityThis makes it essential to deliver the iPhone to consumers, during the upcoming winter holiday season when demand for the handset usually peaks.

Foxconn said in its statement Wednesday that production at the site is “relatively stable” and that it is sticking to its operating outlook for the current quarter because the impact of the outbreak is manageable. It is set to report quarterly results on November 10

Apple, in Its quarterly earnings release On Thursday, Foxconn did not mention the Zhengzhou plant. Its chief financial officer said supply of the new iPhone 14 Pro model is limited due to strong demand.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the Foxconn plant.

Some workers interviewed by the Journal said many colleagues refused to return to the production line. Others simply left, they said, sometimes leaving their belongings behind.

On Sunday, a state-run newspaper in Henan published official notices welcoming people from various parts of the province to return, given quarantine protocols.

Over the weekend, geotagged videos near the Foxconn site went viral on Chinese social-media platforms, recording groups of people walking along highways or through farm fields carrying suitcases and backpacks. Other footage showed local residents offering bottles of water to migrant Foxconn workers in front of handwritten signs to send them home.

Foxconn said in a statement on Sunday that the situation was under control with the help of authorities. The company said it was arranging transportation for workers who wanted to return home and was coordinating production capacity with its plants elsewhere to minimize disruption. The facility has no shortage of medical supplies or necessities, it said.

Earlier on Friday, the company posted a video on WeChat urging people to return to work. “The company needs people,” said a woman’s voice over footage of workers getting off the bus. If someone does not come to work, how will the company run?

Another Foxconn employee said most of his dozen-strong group of night-shift workers were either taken to quarantine facilities or refused to return to work. Every night, he said, he saw workers covered in protective gear waiting to be picked up by buses.

“I don’t know who is a positive case in my neighborhood,” said the worker, who was confined to his dormitory for days. “I’d better stay in the dorms.”

Production on some assembly lines has slowed, with many confined to their quarters, sent to quarantine centers or absent from work, two workers said.

Foxconn has created incentives to maintain production, according to a company announcement Friday.

Anyone returning for work will receive free meals and a daily bonus, it said. Those who come every weekday from October 26 to November 11 will receive a reward of 1,500 yuan, or about $200.

The 21-year-old employee who spoke to the Journal and who worked on an assembly line making an older version of the iPhone, said he had been confined to his quarters since Oct. 17, along with thousands of others.

In the following days, food deliveries were delayed and trash was left unattended in the hallways, piled on the ground floor as more dorms were locked down, he said.

A worker’s daughter said her mother was housed in the same dorm as some who tested positive. A few other workers made the same complaint.

About 10 days ago, about 300 employees of the Foxconn supplier were told to move out of their dormitories and sleep in the factory, one of them said.

In photos shared with the Journal, people sleep on beds and pillows placed on metal bed frames under white fluorescent lights hanging from the hangar-like ceiling. He said hygiene has become a problem. Still, he said he wasn’t supposed to leave the tree—and if he did, he had nowhere to go

“Where can I go? Obstacles are everywhere,” he said. “Managing people at every checkpoint.”

Business and epidemics

write down At Wenxin Fan Wenxin.Fan@wsj.com and Selina Cheng A selina.cheng@wsj.com

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