Foxconn riots: what is happening at Zhengzhou factory, why are workers protesting at company’s iPhone plant?

Large-scale protests have broken out in Foxconn Technology’s plant in China that produces Apple’s iPhones

<p>Large-scale protests have broken out in Foxconn Technology’s plant in China that produces Apple’s iPhones (Twitter / NationalWorld)</p>

Large-scale protests have broken out in Foxconn Technology’s plant in China that produces Apple’s iPhones (Twitter / NationalWorld)

Images circulating on social media show violent protests at Foxconn’s vast iPhone factory in Zhengzhou, central China, amid frustration over treatment of employees and how Covid-19 cases were being handled, including what they said were insufficient provisions of food.

The Zhengzhou plant is the world’s largest iPhone factory with some 200,000 workers. The unrest comes as the Taiwanese firm, Foxconn, recruited an additional 100,000 staff earlier this month, due to an exodus blamed on alleged poor treatment of workers. The hiring spree comes at a time when Apple is facing significant supply chain constraints at the assembly facility and expects iPhone 14 shipments to be hit just as the key holiday shopping season begins.

Foxconn executive Yang Han told Sina Finance: ‘’The quota is finally full, and the recruitment work is temporarily suspended", adding “we still have to do a good job in epidemic prevention in the park. This part is really challenging”.

At the same time, it was reported that Foxconn had changed the subsidies that workers would receive under the new recruitment drive in order to quell anger. The company said it had quadrupled daily bonuses for workers at the plant this month.

What is happening at the Zhengzhou factory?

Videos shared on Weibo and Twitter on Wednesday (23 November) showed hundreds of workers marching on a road. Some are seen being confronted by riot police and people in hazmat suits. Social media users livestreaming the protests said workers were beaten by police and people in white suits carrying riot shields.

NationalWorld cannot independently verify the media, however, there were claims that workers were not being paid fair wages and footage showed witnesses reporting that people were being beaten by authorities. The rare scenes of open dissent mark an escalation of unrest that has come to symbolise a dangerous build-up of discontent with China’s strict Covid-19 rules as well as clumsy handling of the situation by the world’s largest contract manufacturer.

Some workers were seen chanting “give us our pay” as they were surrounded by people carrying batons, according to footage from one video, whilst another shows people attempting to damage official booths.

Why are workers protesting at the company’s iPhone plant?

There have been reports of contract disputes over pay as well as workers expressing concerns over sharing dormitories with those who tested positive for Covid-19 and inept distribution of food.

In a statement, the company described rumours that new recruits were being asked to share dormitories with workers who were Covid-positive were "patently untrue". Foxconn told Chinese media Yicai: "Before new colleagues move in, these dormitories are sanitised and approved by the government before new employees can be accommodated, and there is no mixing with the original employees."

People seen in hazmat suits allegedly assaulting workers at Foxconn Zhengzhou iPhone plant in this screen grab obtained from a video released 23 November, 2022. (Twitter user @guhj797)

There are estimates that thousands fled the factory campus late last month during a new Covid-19 outbreak. Some employees climbed over fences and walked home hundreds of kilometres on foot to escape the plant.

To retain staff and lure more workers the company has had to offer bonuses and higher salaries. The veteran affairs bureau in Changge, a county under the administration of the city of Xuchang in Henan, posted an open letter urging retired Chinese Army personnel to “answer the government’s call” and “take part in the resumption of production” at Foxconn’s manufacturing complex in Zhengzhou. The letter suggested that they “show up where there’s a need”.

Image appears to show notice to former Chinese Army personnel to join Foxconn plant at Zhengzhou due to staff shortages (Weibo)

Does Apple still use Foxconn?

Foxconn is Apple’s biggest iPhone maker, accounting for 70% of iPhone shipments globally. It makes most of the phones at the Zhengzhou plant, though it has other smaller production sites in India and in other parts of China. The Zhengzhou plant was responsible for about 60% of Henan province’s exports in 2019, Yicai Global reported. It is still used as a major supplier for Apple.

China’s stringent Covid-19 policies have been scrutinised heavily. Earlier in November, visitors to Shanghai Disneyland were filmed trapped inside the park after authorities announced a sudden lockdown, with people unable to leave without a negative test. More recently, the southern city of Guangzhou locked down its largest district in an effort to control another major outbreak.