China lockdowns to disrupt iPhone supply after thousands of workers flee factory

Thousands of workers fled an iPhone assembly facility in Zhengzhou after a Covid outbreak, a worker tells ITV News.

Apple has warned of delays to its iPhone deliveries this winter due to Covid lockdowns in China. The company issued a statement saying its Foxconn assembly facility in Zhengzhou is “currently operating at significantly reduced capacity’’ following an outbreak among workers which local officials have struggled to control. Customers who have ordered the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max will have to wait longer to receive their new phones due to the slowdown in production at Foxconn, one of Apple's main suppliers. ITV News has spoken to a worker from the iPhone production line who described the chaos which led to thousands of workers fleeing the Foxconn factory and walking for hours, in some cases days, to reach their hometowns in other parts of China. The man, who wished to remain anonymous, told us the company was slow to respond to the first few cases detected at the beginning of last month.

Some factory workers walked for days to reach their hometowns. Credit: ITV

"Zheng" said they hired volunteers to conduct Covid testing in the plant, where many migrant workers live on site.

He said it was clear that these volunteers did not have the required medical training to test properly, enforce quarantines or manage the treatment of anyone with symptoms.

There are around 200,000 workers at the Zhengzhou facility. After two weeks a fence was erected to separate the living quarters from the production line, and from that point things quickly spiralled out of control.

Those quarantined in their rooms were not getting any food because nobody wanted to go near them.

Only those working were allowed to get food, but soon people were too scared to work, for fear of getting infected.

Not only were those who had tested positive not getting any food, they weren’t getting proper treatment either.

Officials in hazmat suits stand-by as workers are sent to quarantine. Credit: ITV

On 29 October thousands decided to make a run for it, videos posted online show workers scaling fences, or kicking them down, to break free from what had become a Covid hell. Zheng was among those who escaped. Before he fled, he contacted the authorities in his hometown and a bus was sent to a meeting point two hours from the Foxconn plant.

He and several colleagues were taken to straight to an official quarantine facility. This place at least has food and is closer to home.

The mass departure of migrant workers left Foxconn without enough staff to maintain its production levels and last week Zheng received a text message sent from the company trying to recruit new staff and offering a higher salary.

He ignored it. He never wants to go back to work there after the way he was treated.

The few of his friends who stayed are now working in a closed-loop system, living and working in quarantine. They were enticed with generous bonuses, but strict conditions, to stay.

Credit: ITV

Apple joins a growing list of global brands from tech to toy makers who have been forced to reduce, suspend or in some cases cancel production altogether due to the strict zero-Covid measures imposed at their Chinese facilities.

Cosmetic giant Estee Lauder and clothing maker Canada Goose have had to shut stores in China and downgrade annual forecasts. The likes of KFC and Pizza Hut have also been hit by closures due to lockdowns. With case numbers in China at a six-month high, things are unlikely to improve anytime soon.

Rumours started to spread last week that a government committee had been established to discuss the relaxation of rules and a potential "opening-up" timetable of Spring 2023.

They haven’t got the pandemic under control. So far hundreds of people have been taken away, either positive cases or close contacts. But the National Health Commission held a press conference on Saturday at which they reaffirmed the country’s commitment to its zero-Covid policy. In this latest wave, Wuhan is among the cities where thousands of people have again been locked into their homes.

It feels like China is stuck on repeat. Three years on the country is forging on with its formulaic Covid response, with no apparent exit strategy in sight.

Foxconn said in a statement that it is revising its outlook for this quarter downward due to the lockdown. “Foxconn is now working with the government in a concerted effort to stamp out the pandemic and resume production to its full capacity as quickly as possible,” the company said Monday. It also said that the provincial government has said it will “fully support” Foxconn in managing the plant's pandemic prevention and operation situation. In a post on the Zhengzhou plant's WeChat social media account Sunday, the company said a “closed loop” system would restrict its employees’ travel between their dormitories and the factory area to manage risks of COVID-19 transmission.

ITV News has approached Foxconn for comment.

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