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the “zero Covid” policy, a grain of sand in the cogs of the Foxconn mega-factory

Foxconn, the Taiwanese giant which manages the largest iPhone manufacturing plant in the world, has been seeking since Wednesday to appease the protest movement which agitates part of its 300,000 workers. An explosive situation that says a lot about the social consequences of the “zero Covid” policy at a time when the pressure exerted by the big brands on these factories is at its height.

Clashes between police and workers, followed by a promise of generous bonuses and a rare mea culpa. All against a backdrop of tensions linked to the application of the Chinese policy of “zero Covid”, which has exposed the very difficult working conditions in the largest iPhone manufacturing plant in the world.

The last two days have not been easy for Foxconn, the Taiwanese giant which operates the “mega-factory” in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province in central China. “We apologize for a technical error in the bonus payments,” a Foxconn official said Thursday, November 24.

Where are the bonuses?

Rare apologies for a group that has built its reputation on its ability to manage with an iron fist “factory-cities” where up to 350,000 employees can work simultaneously. To the great satisfaction of most of the major global electronics brands – Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo – who have their smartphones and other electronic devices manufactured there.

But there is currently a big grain of sand in the cogs of this very efficient mechanism. Several videos that circulated on social networks on Wednesday made the world aware of the fed up of the workers at the Zhengzhou factory: hundreds of them demonstrated loudly around the gigantic complex and did not not hesitate to fight with the police who came to silence the protest.

These workers complained in particular about the double discourse allegedly held by Foxconn. They would have received the assurance of receiving large bonuses when they arrived on the site, but discovered that the payment of this money would only occur after several months.

In addition, these seasonal workers accused their employer of having forced them to live with other workers who had Covid-19 in the rooms of this industrial city which covers more than 10 km². Unacceptable living conditions in a country “where the official discourse has long been to highlight the dangers of Covid-19 to justify the implementation of drastic health measures”, recalls Xin Sun, specialist in industrial policy at King’s College London. .

Foxconn immediately disputed the latter charge, saying there were quarantine measures in place and all rooms were regularly sanitized.

Social tensions which have everything to do with the evolution of the health situation in the country in general – China has just recorded the highest number of new daily contaminations with Sars-CoV2 since the start of the pandemic – and in the Henan region in particular.

Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, has just decided to impose confinement on its six million inhabitants. A measure that recalls the hardest hours of Beijing’s “zero Covid” policy, when the “authorities had begun to change their tone in recent weeks, assuring that the Covid may not be that serious, to prepare people for a full reopening of their economy,” said Xin Sun.

“Zero Covid” vs 100% of iPhones under the tree

In the local Foxconn factory, the situation is more complex. Since the discovery, in mid-October, of the first cases of contamination, officials have put in place a protocol supposed to meet the two contradictory requirements of the regime: maintenance of the “zero Covid” policy and the obligation to produce at all costs.

The workers are no longer allowed to eat together in the canteen and receive three meals a day which they must take in their rooms. But the food is distributed at working hours and “employees have said that the dishes were cold when they returned to their living quarters”, relates the South China Morning Post.

Travel and exit authorizations have been reduced to a minimum to contain the spread of the virus, while work rates have been increased to meet the deadlines of multinationals. The latest iPhones and other gadgets built in these factories have to be present under Christmas trees around the world.

Result: thousands of workers fled the factory at the end of October, faced with this deterioration in working conditions. Images of workers climbing and destroying the fences surrounding the factory made the rounds on Chinese social networks, before being censored by the authorities.

“I was in the same room with two people who tested positive and received no treatment. I was afraid of getting sick, I was afraid of dying, so I fled and walked for 30 km on the highway before a truck agreed to pick me up,” a former worker told the South China Morning Post. Others said they walked hundreds of kilometers to get home.

After this massive exodus, it was impossible for Foxconn to continue producing as if nothing had happened. Rare fact: Apple confirmed in early November that there would probably be delays in the delivery of its latest iPhone 14.

“What is happening in the Foxconn complex has also happened in dozens of other factories in China. But the importance of the protest and the economic weight of this specific site make us really realize the cost economic and social benefits for the workers of the ‘zero Covid’ policy”, assures Xin Sun.

Setbacks for Foxconn in China, boon for Foxconn in India and Vietnam?

Thanks to this factory, Foxconn is the third largest exporter in China, having sold abroad for 39 billion dollars of electronic products in 2019, recalls the Financial Times. Nearly 60% of all iPhones are produced there.

This site also represents the economic lung of Henan province: it is responsible for more than 60% of the region’s total exports and 90% of those of Zhengzhou, recalls Marina Zhang, a specialist in Chinese industry at the university. technology in Sydney, in an article published by The Diplomat website.

No wonder in these conditions that the local authorities have done everything to help Foxconn to recruit urgently to meet the deadlines. They have, in particular, ordered several villages to send a contingent of workers who could temporarily go and lend a hand in the Zhengzhou factory, underlines the South China Morning Post.

Even Beijing has turned into a luxury recruiter, asking army veterans to return to service as workers, explains the British channel BBC. The regime seeks to erase “the very bad image, on the international scene, of the reliability of the Chinese supply chain given by this affair”, assures Xin Sun.

At a time when some Western countries were already wondering how to reduce their dependence on China, this episode risks pushing them “to seek to further diversify their sources of supply”, believes Xin Sun.

A movement that “will not happen overnight because, at the moment, no country has the same mix of low-cost labor and good quality infrastructure”, estimates the King’s economist Middle School. But in the longer term, this episode is likely to leave its mark and large groups could find that countries like India or Vietnam – where Foxconn has already built factories – could represent valid alternatives to China.