In late October, dramatic images and videos of Chinese workers jumping over factory walls and fences and walking home on foot grabbed global headlines. Why is this happening, and why does the story resonate with so many people?
In late October, information and rumors circulating among workers about mass infections and even death of infected workers inside the Foxconn mega-factory in China’s central Henan province sparked an exodus of workers. Fearing being infected and consequently unable to leave the facility, workers jumped over factory walls and fences in an attempt to escape and head home.
Why is this happening? Why does the story resonate with so many people? What is the significance of this event? We spoke to Eli Friedman who has been researching and writing about Chinese workers for two decades, and is following Foxconn incident closely. We discussed the history of Foxconn’s treatment of workers in China, and why it is important to see the exodus as a collective action in the form of workers’ mass refusal to work.
Asian Labour Review (“ALR”): In the past few weeks we have seen very striking images and videos of Chinese workers escaping from the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou. A lot of that was posted on Chinese social media, so not everything is verifiable. To the extent that we can be somewhat certain, can you describe what happened inside Zhengzhou Foxconn that caused workers’ panicked actions?
Eli Friedman (“Eli”): We do know that sometime in October (2022) that there were reports of outbreaks in the city of Zhengzhou at a very low level. We’re just still talking about a handful of cases in a city of many millions of people. Subsequently, there were reports of cases within the Foxconn facility itself which has more than 200,000 workers.
Things get a little bit murkier when it gets to the deaths that had happened in a particular room within the Foxconn facility as circulated on social media. These deaths are unverified. But these videos very quickly gained a lot of traction both among people within Foxconn who were extremely concerned about this, and also on social media more broadly. Based on the evidence that we have it is not apparent that people had died but it is plausible.
What we do know is that it generated a very strong reaction from people within Foxconn, and that reaction is grounded in the experiences that people are having, which is that they were implementing the closed-loop management system. It means that people were no longer freely allowed to leave the facility, and they had to just go between the onsite dormitories and their workshops.
There were reports that some people were sleeping in the workshops, and that ff they were tested positive, or were close contacts they might be put into quarantine facilities which were pretty abysmal. People were not being given adequate access to medical care and food. In some cases, people who had fallen sick, but nobody was checking on them.
In that environment, whether the deaths happened or not, it captured the mood and really increased people’s level of anxiety, fear and even panic. That was the spark that led to these mass escapes.
ALR: Why do you think this case seems to have resonated so strongly for both people in China and a lot of people outside of China?
Eli: In China there has been a growing sense at least since the Shanghai lockdowns in April (2022) that a growing percentage of Chinese people, particularly in urban areas, are beginning to grow fed up and are increasingly resistant to the Covid policies.
I should say that there are good justifications for the zero-Covid policies. China’s vaccination rate among elderly and other vulnerable people is quite low. The health care infrastructure is not adequate, and migrant worker populations in particular are poorly covered by health insurance. If they were to take the step that just about every other country in the world has taken and allow the virus to spread more or less unchecked, it would lead to probably hundreds of thousands of deaths.
When the rest of the world has moved on, even if it was following tragic and massive loss of life, it is hard for people in Chinese cities to have to continue to live in a situation where life can be very precarious. If your health code turns up red and suddenly, you can’t leave your house, you can’t go to work, and your livelihood might therefore be imperiled. Sometimes it feels a little bit arbitrary, and not necessarily in the best interest of public health.
The differences between the lockdown in Shanghai in April of this year and the initial Wuhan lockdown in 2020 are important. When we look at the Wuhan lockdown, there was widespread social support and engagement and participation for that lockdown. It was difficult, and it seemed harsh, but there’s a lot of support for it. That support, I think, has eroded dramatically and it’s going to be increasingly difficult for the government to get that kind of buy-in for these really harsh, more recent lockdowns.
One of the reasons is that during these more recent lockdowns, the government and employers have demanded that people continue to work. Now they’re saying, “Well, you have to stay in your workplace. And you have to keep working at full speed.” I think that that was really dramatized by what was going on in Foxconn. No place in the world is of higher speed production than Foxconn as they’re coming up to the ramp-up season for the production of iPhones and so on.
For all of those reasons, I think that Foxconn presented in a kind of exaggerated form what Chinese people have been experiencing and have been growing increasingly disillusioned with.
There’s one other reason why I think it might resonate, especially among labor activists. And that’s the long history of Foxconn’s labor rights violations. It is a company that has been infamous for being exploitative and extremely controlling of the movements and the lives of its employees.
ALR: We’ll go into more details about Foxconn’s mechanisms of labor control. Before that, I want to ask about where this closed-loop system came from, and how it has operated. It has been used by other manufacturers in other cities for a while before Foxconn.
Eli: I think it’s important to do a brief history of the closed-loop system, and the history of it actually starts in the United States.
If you go back to the summer and fall of 2020, the National Basketball Association (NBA) formed what they call the Bubble and this was an effort on the part of the NBA to ensure that the season and the finals could proceed. They brought all of the teams to Florida and created the system where players were not allowed to leave and very few people were allowed to come in. The players would be housed on site. Food and medical supplies could be bought in. There were no spectators, and the NBA finals proceeded successfully.
The NBA Bubble was adapted for the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Of course, because it’s the Chinese government, they ran it more tightly. Then it was deployed to workplaces throughout the country. The first time that it was really implemented on a large scale was the Shanghai lockdown. As cases were beginning to go up in March (2022), they implemented the lockdown over the course of April and into May.
At a certain point in April, the government identified 666 companies that are key to the functioning of Shanghai’s economy, and these companies implement the closed-loop system. These firms were told to continue to continue operation.
Evidence suggests that workers were given a choice about going into the closed-loop. But there’s a question of how much of a choice that was if you’re a blue-collar worker. If you don’t go in, that means you are no longer employed. If you did go into the loop, it was not at all clear how long you were going to go in for. Initially people thought it might just be 2 weeks, but in some cases it ended up being more than 70 days.
A couple of notable examples that implemented closed-loop were the Tesla Gigafactory in Shanghai, which is their largest production facility in the world. There was also the Quanta factory, which is an electronics supplier to Apple and also a supplier to Tesla.
Some enterprises do not have on-site dormitories and workers were forced to sleep on the shop floor. During that time they couldn’t buy food, they could not leave to see their families or their friends. So their entire life came to be enclosed in these workspaces. They’re trying to stop people from moving while keeping the economy going, and it just creates unbelievable stresses on people’s daily lives.
ALR: I think in such situations, the line was increasingly blurred between the closed-loop system as a supposedly temporary Covid measure and forced labor. Would you describe what happened as an instance of forced labor?
Eli: The evidence that we have so far is still incomplete. We should be calling for a thorough investigation by an independent agency to find out exactly what was going on. But every indicator says that there were practices that amount to forced labor. I mean when workers were leaving, they weren’t walking out the front door comfortably but jumping over fences or finding gaps in the fences and running through. It seems to me very clear that this is an unfree situation.
Now there’s a couple of motivations for this. One is wanting to just keep the workers and ensure that they can meet Apple’s incredibly stringent deadlines. As workers were falling sick, and more and more were being put into quarantine, they wanted to ensure workers who were healthy would stay on the production line. The other thing is that a lot of the responsibilities of maintaining the closed-loop system have been decentralized. So it’s actually not the state that’s implementing them, but these employers.
So Foxconn is now responsible for housing, feeding, and providing care to sick workers. They’re doing this at a scale that is really no small feat. If you have workers escaping from the plant who are positive with Covid and this seeds outbreaks outside of the plant, that also becomes a political problem for Foxconn.
The good news is that there was this mass refusal, you can think of it as a kind of a strike. People refusing to work, at least under those kinds of conditions. And this actually forced a change. Foxconn has since said, “Well, okay, actually you can leave now and if you’re willing to stay we’ll pay you more money.” I think we have to be attentive to the ways in which worker collective action has already forced some important changes and potentially improvements.
ALR: I have been thinking of this question of collective action along the same line. The story has been framed as workers’ escaping Foxconn, which is true enough. However, while this is not a classic case of workplace strike, it is an instance of collective refusal to work.
Of course, it is an individual decision whether to stay or leave, but we know there was a lot of discussion among workers about escaping and workers were supporting each other to run away in the process. In this sense, it’s a form of collective action, and resistance against what capital is doing to them.
Eli: It’s definitely collective action. The workers were having a collective experience locked in the workplace in their dormitories. They presumably developed, as you see in any kind of labor action, a sense of common interest, collective grievances, and a course of action. It wasn’t just that you saw one worker jumping over a fence. You see the images and the videos of these long lines of hundreds or thousands of people walking on the highways, walking through fields, trying to avoid the pandemic control workers who are trying to stop them.
I don’t know the details of how it was organized, but clearly there were collective decisions that were being made. It was not a centralized leadership. But they almost certainly were sharing information about where to escape. Once they got out, there was information about where they might find transportation or access to food.
There is another piece of this – I don’t know how widespread it was – but we saw that locals were putting out food and water. They were arranging these kinds of decentralized mutual aid to try to help the workers. I think that the generalized sympathy that the workers encountered not just on the Internet, but right there in the community. This is an indicator that this was a collective process and that even people who are not directly in the workplace were sympathetic to what they were doing. This is a mini social movement for sure.
ALR: Let’s talk about who these workers are in the Zhengzhou Foxconn. Who are these workers, and where are they from?
Eli: First I should provide a little bit of background on Foxconn’s expansion in China. It is a Taiwanese company. Their first major production facilities which they expanded in the early-2000s was in Shenzhen. At its peak, the largest facility in Shenzhen had close to 400,000 workers. But amid this huge expansion in the mid-2000s, Shenzhen began to experience a labor shortage.
So part of their strategy, in order to ensure that they could produce on the massive scale which Apple demands from them, was to expand some of their factories to more inland areas, including the biggest one in Zhengzhou, as well as Taiyuan and Chengdu and some other places.
Zhengzhou is the biggest one. One of the selling points for the Zhengzhou government was that Henan is one of the most populous provinces that has more than 100 million people. It’s not all that wealthy. There’s a lot of people in the immediate hinterland of Zhengzhou, who the government proposed would be good Foxconn workers.
In contrast to what we saw in the Shenzhen factory where people were really coming from all over the country, in Zhengzhou many of the workers are actually from within the province. They’re not local in the sense that they’re not mostly from Zhengzhou itself, but they are from surrounding cities, towns and villages.
That is an important difference, and really significant for understanding this particular event of workers running away. It was still a very, very long walk. I heard reports of people who are planning to walk 200 kilometers, or something like that. Many of them ended up getting rides. But at least there was this idea that I can spend a day or two just walking on the road, and I’ll be able to get home.
ALR: In terms of the composition of the workforce, I read reports that suggest perhaps over 70 or 80 percent of those on the production line in Zhengzhou Foxconn are what is called “dispatch labor”, which is a form of agency workers that do not sign contract directly with Foxconn for the purpose of increasing flexible and casual employment.
Eli: I haven’t seen any precise number. My guess is that Foxconn will do everything in their power to prevent those numbers from coming out. According to Chinese labor law, you’re not allowed to have more than 10 percent of your workforce be these kinds of irregular workers. But there have been many reports that Foxconn and other Apple suppliers have systematically violated that for many years.
One reason is just because they’re cheaper. You can usually avoid paying social insurance. Also it is because there’s greater flexibility that can help them respond to Apple’s demands around the ramp-up of production of commodities in particular times of year while still minimizing employment costs.
There’s one other category of worker that I think is really important to mention. That is the student interns. There was widespread use of intern labor. These people are enrolled in technical schools and they are sent out as interns to Foxconn and other electronics factories. Zhengzhou Foxconn it has been illegally making use of these student interns for more than 10 years.
Those internships oftentimes have absolutely nothing to do with the major that the students are studying. But because of agreements between the schools and the employers, the schools will refuse to issue their diplomas unless they do these so-called internships, where they get paid less than the regular workers and don’t enjoy any sort of benefits. This is clearly a form of, if not forced labor, at least not totally free labor.
ALR: These are really important reminders. I want to ask how Foxconn has managed to control and manage such large workforces in its facilities. How is it able to do that?
Eli: One of the key arrangements for Foxconn and other labor intensive manufacturers has been the dormitory regime. These labor intensive export oriented manufacturers largely housed workers in onsite dormitories. This has changed somewhat, and it’s less prevalent now than it was 15 years ago. But it’s still being implemented at Zhengzhou Foxconn.
It might sound like a nice benefit, and it can be helpful for these migrant workers who come from far away. It is also extremely useful as a source of worker control because it is easy to surveil workers in these spaces.
Another thing is that Foxconn is known for breaking up pre-existing social networks in the dormitory. Chinese workers often come with groups of people through these hometown networks. They speak a similar dialect, and therefore have a kind of social connection.
Foxconn tries very consciously to break those up, and so to put people in dorm rooms with people from other regions of the country who they do not know because they don’t want workers having these kinds of social networks that they might use to mobilize against the employer.
But critically the dormitory regime is important for being able to mobilize the workforce in a manner that is consistent with the demands of their buyers, their largest buyer being Apple. But they have other electronics buyers that impose these outrageous demands on the workers during the ramp-up season.
They’ll demand people to work not just 9 or 10 hours a day but it can be 11, 12, 13 or 14 hours a day. When something goes wrong, they can go and pull the workers out of their dormitory in the middle of the night, and send them to the assembly line.
ALR: Some people might have assumed that labor conditions have improved in China in recent years, but clearly many problems persist.
Eli: I think we need to look at the entire organization of the supply chain, which goes back to Apple, and is generated by Apple’s market competition with other electronics firms. We’ve already seen in the last few years that as labor costs have gone up in China, they’re already relocating to other places. Foxconn is expanding in Vietnam. They have a big expansion underway in India.
It’s important to look at the very specific, terrible things that the employers are doing in Zhengzhou and in these other places. But also, if we’re interested in really addressing the problem rather than just relocating the labor abuses to another country, we do have to have that global perspective and think about a different way of organizing production at the global scale.
ALR: As you said, Foxconn doesn’t only operate facilities in China. It has been investing and setting up facilities globally for years. What do we know about the global footprints of Foxconn, and what it means for labor standards?
Eli: They don’t want to stay static. They have grown from a not particularly noteworthy company in Taiwan a generation ago to being this massive Fortune 500 Company that plays a key role in the production of iconic electronics.
They recognize some of the limitations of production in China. But they will not be able to expand in other countries in the way that they did in China, where they have this tremendous scale and efficiency, not to mention the political repression of the working class that they have enjoyed in China over the last 15, 20 years. They just can’t reproduce that in Vietnam, in India, in wherever else they decide to invest.
I’m not enough of an expert on these different countries to be able to assess how consistent the labor practices have been across the different sites. I’ve been interested in learning more about Foxconn’s auto plant in Ohio. They’re not going to be able to do what they do with the Zhengzhou Foxconn.
First of all, the scale is not even close and in terms of housing workers on-site you can’t do that in Ohio. There’s the possible threat of unionization, although foreign automakers have been able to avoid unionization in the United States.
ALR: There has been a lot of coverage of the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress. It’s very hard to move beyond speculations about elite politics, which is incredibly difficult to decipher. This is understandable because it is difficult to travel to China due to the Covid restrictions to observe and talk to people, and information is opaque.
So the Foxconn situation offers a kind of a window into understanding what’s happening on the ground. What does the Foxconn situation mean also for understanding labor in China and and for extending labor solidarity?
Eli: Well, definitely as an academic, you can’t do academic research there right now. The labor NGOs that used to operate that disseminated information have largely been shut down or have been prevented from doing any of their normal activities.
There is, at the risk of stretching the metaphor a little, something of a closed-loop with respect to information. This just makes it very hard to know how to support the actions of Chinese workers, or to act in solidarity with them.
My hope is that this incident will force people in Beijing, but also in the local governments who are required to implement these policies, to think about what a pro-worker version of pandemic control might look like because we’ve really seen that workers have been disproportionately impacted by all these policies.
One of the things about the Foxconn event – I’m not sure if I want to say encouraging – is that it reminds us that Chinese workers are continuing the tradition that we’ve seen over the last generation of collective action, of revolting against injustices in the workplace.
It allows us to think of ways, not of really directly supporting them because that is still kind of impossible, but at least sending out signals of solidarity. I think it’s important for people within China to be able to see that people outside of the country – who are consuming those products or living in the countries where their employers might be based – are showing solidarity with them.
Read the first hand account by a Foxconn worker: “Human life means nothing (to them)”: Interview with a Chinese worker who fled Foxconn
Read the review of Eli Friedman’s latest work: How Urbanizing the Population Deepened China’s Rural-Urban Divide in Migrant Schooling
Photo: AI-generated art by WOMBO