Overseas Chinese labor activists and their allies have launched a campaign to hold Apple and Foxconn to account for the mistreatment of workers at a Chinese factory where half of the world’s iPhones are made. They gathered outside the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York on November 6, handing out flyers urging passers-by to sign a petition with the support of labor and community organizations around the world.
Since late October, footage showing brutal treatment at one of Foxconn’s biggest factories has surfaced online and has even been picked up by state media in China. Online videos showed workers – eager to escape the virus, hunger and harsh working conditions in the locked factory complex – jumping over fences and fleeing despite harsh weather conditions and long journeys back to their native towns and villages.
The factory, located in the city of Zhengzhou in Henan province, is Apple’s largest production site in China. More than 200,000 workers are employed there. Foxconn is Apple’s largest global supplier and drew attention to its poor working conditions, including during a spate of suicides at its Shenzhen factory in 2010.
Trapped at work
Foxconn employees are in the midst of the production season for the new iPhone 14, with management eager to deliver on its on-time delivery promises to Apple.
Since October, the Zhengzhou factory complex has been operating an inhuman closed-loop management regime, prohibiting workers from leaving the area. Closed-loop systems require workers to live on-site within the factory complex for a period of time, so the company can maintain production even during regional Covid shutdowns in China, as well as prevent the likelihood of virus outbreaks among workforce.
Despite this approach, new Covid outbreaks still appeared in the complex. But in order to continue production, Foxconn kept its doors closed, preventing workers from leaving while failing to maintain adequate conditions inside.
There were reports of infected workers being forced into self-isolation in nearby unfinished dormitories with no access to medical services and supplies. Some workers slept in the workplace to avoid infected workers living in the same dormitories that were not isolated.
For those who are not infected, if they did not go to work, they could not receive packed lunches which are only distributed after work – leaving them without food, since the restaurants inside the complex have all closed. Workers complained they also lacked adequate protective gear.
Workers attempting to leave the factory complex were restrained, sometimes by force.
It’s Apple’s responsibility
This is far from the first time that Foxconn’s labor practices have come under scrutiny. News reports from 2019 and 2020 revealed that the company employs many more temporary workers than allowed by Chinese law. Temporary workers, hired through private employment agencies, are common in China and enjoy even less job security than other types of temporary workers. Foxconn failed to provide agency workers with the appropriate employment contracts and benefits guaranteed by Chinese labor law – also a common practice in factories in China.
After the videos of fleeing workers surfaced, Foxconn parent company Hon Hai released a statement on October 30, saying it would make improvements, guaranteeing more basic necessities for workers (providing three free meals a day and a worker hotline), offering transport for those who want to leave and s pledging to reopen some restaurants in the complex. He also announced that he was quadrupling the bonuses for the workers who remained. But he continued to assert closed-loop management practices – a kind of forced labor.
The government’s insistence on strict Covid lockdowns should not give companies an excuse to enact forced labour. Foxconn always chooses to prioritize profit over the health and human rights of workers.
Apple’s statement last Sunday, released on the day of action in New York, was even more damaging. The company said it would slow production capacity in Zhengzhou to “prioritize[e] the health and safety of workers in our supply chain […] as we have done throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet Apple refuses to acknowledge the wrongs committed against the workers under its watch, and does not mention that it has called for increased production at another Foxconn factory in Shenzhen.
Chinese state media still failed to adequately report on workers’ conditions. With information tightly controlled by the ruling Communist Party, we need an independent third party to investigate in order to uncover the truth.
As Foxconn’s main source of orders, with products purchased by consumers around the world, Apple has a responsibility to organize such an investigation under the supervision of international unions, including US unions and the International Trade Union Confederation.
Protest against lone wolves
Overseas Chinese activists’ response to the egregious conditions in Zhengzhou follows a decentralized global movement echoing a rare lone wolf protest against Chinese rule in Beijing last month, just days before the National Congress of China. ruling party.
The protester, Peng Lifa, unveiled banners on the capital’s Sitong Bridge, calling on all levels of Chinese civil society to strike and take to the streets in dissent against President Xi Jinping and the autocratic regime of the left.
This sparked a wave of protests around the world by many overseas Chinese, including international students and other young people who reproduced Peng’s demands on posters posted on college campuses and towns.
While Peng’s demands did not clearly address the capitalist nature of the Chinese state and economy, in his online report manifest he spoke of the fate of migrants and other precarious workers, whose exploitation has intensified during the pandemic.
The revelations about conditions at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou further testify to the fact that China’s authoritarian governance cannot be divorced from its hyper-exploitation of labor for the global commodity economy.
Overseas solidarity is crucial
The repressive political conditions in China prevent any coordinated and independent mass protest beyond the savage and brief actions of the lone wolves. Given this, overseas Chinese can play an outsized role in building an effective dissident movement.
This solidarity movement with Foxconn workers by overseas Chinese activists themselves is an important follow-up to the Sitong Bridge protests as it touches on how the Chinese regime’s political power derives from its reliance on the regard to its capitalist sector.
A real struggle for democracy in China involves building a mass movement not only against authoritarianism, but also against authoritarian capital. This requires a critical attitude towards the regimes in the United States and China, which promote the power of multinational corporations to prioritize profits and growth over the lives of workers.
To do this, we must continue to strengthen the links between unions and other labor organizations around the world and this new generation of Chinese activists abroad.
#SupportFoxconnWorkers by signing and sharing the petition here.
Liu Xiang and Ruo Yan are pseudonyms of overseas Chinese labor activists. Pseudonyms were used to protect activists and their families from retaliation by the Chinese government.