Zhang Yao recalls the moment he realized something had gone profoundly wrong at the Chinese mega-factory where he and hundreds of thousands of other workers were assembling iPhones and other high-end electronics.
In early October, supervisors suddenly warned him that 3,000 co-workers had been quarantined after someone tested positive for Covid-19 at the factory.
“They told us not to take off our masks,” Zhang told AFP by phone, speaking under a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.
What followed was a week-long ordeal including food shortages and the ever-present fear of infection, before he finally escaped on Tuesday.
Zhang’s employer, Taiwanese tech giant Foxconn, said it faced a “protracted battle” against infections and imposed a “closed-loop” bubble around its sprawling campus in the city of Zhengzhou. , in central China.
Local authorities locked down the area surrounding Apple’s main supplier’s factory on Wednesday, but not before reports emerged of employees fleeing on foot and a lack of adequate medical care at the factory.
China is the latest major economy committed to a zero Covid strategy, persisting with instant lockdowns, mass testing and lengthy quarantines in a bid to eradicate emerging epidemics.
But new variants have tested officials’ ability to quell surges and curb economic activity with the threat of sudden disruptions.
Several workers recounted scenes of chaos and growing disorganization at Foxconn’s workshop and dormitory complex, which forms a city within a city near Zhengzhou Airport.
Zhang told AFP that “positive tests and double lines (on antigen tests) had become commonplace” in his workshop before he left.
“Of course we were scared, it was so close to us.”
“People with a fever are not guaranteed to receive medicine,” another Foxconn employee, a 30-year-old man who also asked to remain anonymous, told AFP.
“We are drowning,” he said.
Those who decided to stop working were not offered meals in their dormitories, Zhang said, adding that some were able to survive on personal stocks of instant noodles.
Kai, a worker at the complex who gave an interview to state-owned Sanlian Lifeweek, told Foxconn magazine that the “closed loop” involved sealing off the paths between the dormitories and the factory, and complained about ‘to be left to fend for himself after being thrown into quarantine.
TikTok videos geotagged by AFP showed mounds of uncollected rubbish outside buildings in late October, as employees wearing N95 masks crowded into crowded shuttles taking them from dormitories to their workstations.
A 27-year-old woman working at Foxconn, who asked not to be named, told AFP that a roommate who tested positive for Covid was sent back to her dorm in tears on Thursday morning after deciding to hand in her resigned while in quarantine.
“Now the three of us live in the same room: one confirmed case and two of us tested positive on the rapid test, still awaiting the results of our nucleic acid tests,” the worker told AFP. .
Many became so desperate late last month that they attempted to return to their hometowns to circumvent Covid transport curbs.
As videos of people dragging their suitcases down highways and climbing hills spread across Chinese social media, authorities scrambled to limit the damage.
The Zhengzhou city government said on Sunday it had arranged for special buses to take employees back to their hometowns.
Surrounding Henan province has officially reported a spike of more than 600 Covid cases since the start of this week.
When Zhang finally tried to leave the Foxconn campus on Tuesday, he found that the company had put up obstacle after obstacle.
“There were people with loudspeakers announcing Foxconn’s latest policy, saying there would be a bonus of 400 yuan ($55) every day,” Zhang told AFP.
A crowd of employees gathered at a pick-up point in front of empty buses but were not let on.
People in hazmat suits, known colloquially as “tall whites” in China, said they were sent by the city government.
“They tried to persuade 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 actually from Foxconn.”
Foxconn pointed to local government lockdown orders from Wednesday when asked by AFP if it was trying to stop employees from leaving, without giving further response.
The company said on Sunday that it was “offering employees three free meals a day” and was cooperating with the government to provide transportation home.
Eventually, the crowd of disgruntled workers who had gathered decided to take matters into their own hands and walked more than seven kilometers on foot to the nearest freeway on-ramp.
There, more people pretending to be government officials begged the employees to wait for the bus.
The crowd had no choice because the road was blocked.
The buses finally arrived at five o’clock in the afternoon – nearly nine hours after Zhang began his attempt to secure transport.
“They were trying to crush us,” he said.
Back in her hometown, Zhang is now awaiting the end of the home quarantine period required by the local government.
“All I feel is that I’ve finally left Zhengzhou,” he told AFP.