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Workers flee China's Covid restrictions at Foxconn's huge iPhone factory

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Workers have been staging an exodus this weekend from the world’s largest iPhone factory, amid a coronavirus outbreak at the Foxconn plant in central China.

The huge complex in the city of Zhengzhou, which workers say produces Apple’s iPhone 14, is the latest manufacturing center to be hobbled by President Xi Jinping’s tough zero-Covid policies.

Five workers who spoke to the Financial Times said that the situation at the plant had gradually deteriorated as Covid continued to spread, with food and medical supplies running low and workers being locked in dormitory rooms for quarantine — causing hundreds of employees to flee on foot over the weekend.

“It was total chaos in the dormitories,” said a 22-year-old worker surnamed Xia. “We jumped a plastic fence and a metal fence to get out of the campus,” he said.

Tens of thousands of workers ordinarily piece together iPhones at the plant, run by contract manufacturer Foxconn, before dispatching the Apple smartphones to consumers around the world. The plant shipped $32bn worth of electronics abroad and was China’s third-largest exporter in 2019, according to a think-tank connected to the country’s commerce ministry.

Located in Henan, China’s most populous province, the Foxconn plant has long drawn young workers from villages throughout the region, with local officials helping to find and recruit workers.

But on Sunday, local authorities were scrambling to organize buses to bring those workers home and into centralized quarantine, after scenes of workers tramping down the highway with bags flooded Chinese social media. The FT saw hundreds of workers registering to claim rides home in social media groups.

“I will never go back to Foxconn,” said a worker surnamed Xu, who escaped the plant at 2am on Sunday. “They don’t have humanity there.” He and four friends were on the highway, walking more than 200km to their homes in Xin’an county, Henan, he said.

Authorities in Zhengzhou have partially locked down the city of 10mn after dozens of Covid cases were found. Unlike the rest of the world, China continues to use lockdowns, strict quarantines and mass testing in an attempt to eradicate coronavirus.

Zhengzhou city officials said late on Sunday they would start “the point-to-point return of employees to their hometowns” in a social media post. “Foxconn will go all out to ensure the smooth and safe return home of all Foxconn employees,” the post said.

The city also published a message from Foxconn, promising they would “improve the living and work conditions” for any employees willing to stay.

Workers said the area surrounding the Foxconn plant had been locked down for days, with public transport closed and many roads blocked off. They said Foxconn had strictly controlled movement and used daily Covid testing and quarantines of Covid-positive workers to try to contain the outbreak while continuing iPhone production.

“My co-worker was taken away for quarantine. My elder sister is locked in her dorm room,” said Cao Zhiqiang, an assembly line worker at the plant. “My home is too far to run to so I’m stuck here.”

Cao said that up until the weekend his production line had continued to churn out iPhones and he expected to go to work in the morning.

Foxconn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.