BEIJING: Zhang Yao remembers the moment he realized something had gone wrong at the massive Chinese factory where he and hundreds of thousands of other workers assembled iPhones and other high-end electronics.
In early October, supervisors suddenly warned him that 3,000 colleagues had been moved into quarantine after someone tested positive for Covid-19 at the factory.
“They told us not to take off our masks,” Zhang, speaking under a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, told AFP by phone.
What followed was a weeks-long ordeal including a lack of food and a constant fear of infection, before he finally escaped on Tuesday.
Foxconn, the Taiwanese tech giant in Chang’e, said it faces a “protracted battle” against infection and imposed a “locked in” bubble around its sprawling campus in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou.
Local authorities sealed off the area around the factory of a major Apple supplier on Wednesday, but not before reports emerged of employees fleeing on foot and a lack of adequate medical care at the plant.
China is the latest major economy committed to the coronavirus eradication strategy, as it continues sudden lockdowns, mass testing and prolonged quarantines in an effort to stamp out emerging disease outbreaks.
But the new variables tested officials’ ability to quell unrest and disrupted economic activity with the threat of sudden unrest.
Several workers recounted scenes of increasing chaos and anarchy in the Foxconn complex of workshops and dormitories, which form a city within a city near Zhengzhou airport.
“Positive tests and double lines (in antigen tests) have become a common sight” in his workshop before leaving, Zhang told AFP.
“Of course we were afraid, he was so close to us.”
Another Foxconn worker, a 30-year-old who asked not to be identified, told AFP: “People with a fever are not guaranteed to receive the medicine.”
He said, “We are drowning.”
Those who decided to stop working were not offered meals in their dormitories, Zhang said, adding that some managed to live on a personal supply of instant noodles.
Cai, a complex worker who was interviewed by state-owned Sanlian Lifeweek, told Foxconn that the “closed loop” involves cordoning off passages between the apartment complexes and the factory, and complained that he was left to his own devices after being thrown into quarantine.
TikTok videos geolocated by AFP showed piles of uncollected trash outside buildings in late October, as employees in N95 masks pressed onto crowded shuttles ferrying them from dormitories to their workstations.
A 27-year-old woman who works for Foxconn, who asked not to be named, told AFP her roommate who tested positive for Covid was returned to her dorm Thursday morning, in tears, after she decided to hand in her notice while she was in quarantine. .
“The three of us now live in the same room: one of us is a confirmed case and two of us had a positive rapid test result, and we are still waiting for the results of our nucleic acid test,” the worker told AFP.
Many had become so desperate by the end of last month that they had tried to return to their hometowns to get around the Covid transport barriers.
As videos of people hauling bags on highways and struggling up hills circulated on Chinese social media, authorities scrambled to do damage control.
The Zhengzhou city government said Sunday that it has arranged special buses to take the employees to their hometowns.
Neighboring Henan Province has officially reported a spike of more than 600 COVID-19 cases since the beginning of this week.
When Zhang finally tried to leave the Foxconn campus on Tuesday, he found the company had put up one hurdle after another.
“There were people with megaphones announcing Foxconn’s latest policy, saying there will be a bonus of 400 yuan (55 dollars) every day,” Zhang told AFP.
A crowd of employees gathered at the assembly point in front of empty buses, but they were not allowed to enter.
The people in hazmat suits, known colloquially as “big whites” in China, claimed to have been sent by the city government.
“They tried to convince people to stay in Zhengzhou … and avoid going home,” Zhang said.
“But when we asked to see their work ID, they had nothing to show us, so we suspected they were in fact from Foxconn.”
Foxconn referred to the local government’s lockdown orders from Wednesday when asked by AFP if it was trying to prevent employees from leaving, without giving any further response.
In the end, the gathered crowd of dissatisfied workers decided to take matters into their own hands and walked more than seven kilometers on foot to the nearest highway entrance ramp.
There, more people who claimed to be government officials called on employees to wait for the bus.
The crowd had no choice because the road was blocked.
The buses finally arrived at 5 p.m. — about nine hours after Zhang began trying to secure transportation.
“They were trying to crush us,” he said.
Back in his hometown, Zhang is now waiting for the home quarantine period required by the local government.
“All I feel is that I finally left Zhengzhou,” he told AFP.