BEIJING – Police beat workers protesting over a pay dispute at the biggest factory for Apple's iPhone, whose new model is delayed by controls imposed as China tries to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Foxconn, the biggest contract assembler of smartphones and other electronics, is struggling to fill orders for the iPhone 14 after thousands of employees walked away from the factory in the central city of Zhengzhou last month following complaints about unsafe working conditions.
China’s status as an export powerhouse is based on factories such as Foxconn's that assemble the world’s consumer electronics, toys and other goods.
The ruling Communist Party is trying to contain the latest wave of outbreaks without shutting down factories and the rest of its economy as it did in early 2020. Its tactics include “closed-loop management,” under which workers live in their factories with no outside contact.
Foxconn offered higher pay to attract more workers to the Zhengzhou factory to assemble the iPhone 14, which sells starting at $799 in the United States.
On Tuesday, a protest erupted after employees who had traveled long distances to take jobs at the factory complained that the company changed terms of their pay, according to an employee, Li Sanshan.
Li said he quit a catering job when he saw an advertisement promising 25,000 yuan ($3,500) for two months of work. That would be a significant hike over average pay for this type of work in the area.
After employees arrived, the company said they had to work two additional months at lower pay to receive the 25,000 yuan, according to Li.
“Foxconn released very tempting recruiting offers, and workers from all parts of the country came, only to find they were being made fools of,” he said.
Videos online showed thousands of people in masks facing rows of police in white protective suits with plastic riot shields. Police kicked and hit a protester with clubs after he grabbed a metal pole that had been used to strike him. People who shot the footage said it was filmed at the site.
The protests in Zhengzhou come as the ruling Communist Party faces rising frustration about restrictions in areas across China that have closed shops and offices and confined millions of people to their homes.
That has boiled over into protests in some cities. Videos on social media show residents tearing down barricades set up to enforce neighborhood closures.
The ruling party promised this month to try to reduce disruptions by shortening quarantines and making other changes. But the party is sticking to a “zero-COVID” strategy that aims to isolate every case while other governments relax controls and try to live with the virus.
The protest in Zhengzhou lasted through Wednesday morning as thousands of workers gathered outside dormitories and confronted factory security workers, according to Li.
Apple Inc. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The company earlier warned iPhone 14 deliveries would be delayed after access to an industrial zone around the Zhengzhou factory, which Foxconn says employs 200,000 people, was suspended following outbreaks.
Other videos showed protesters spraying fire extinguishers toward police.
A man who identified himself as the Communist Party secretary in charge of community services was shown in a video posted on the Sina Weibo social media platform urging protesters to withdraw. He assured them their demands would be met.
Foxconn, whose headquarters are in New Taipei City, Taiwan, said that its contractual obligation about payments “has always been fulfilled.”
The company denied what it said were comments online that employees with the virus lived in dormitories at the Zhengzhou factory. It said facilities were disinfected and passed government checks before employees moved in.
“Regarding any violence, the company will continue to communicate with employees and the government to prevent similar incidents from happening again,” a company statement said.
Foxconn offered up to 10,000 yuan ($1,400) to newly hired employees who wanted to quit and return home, the finance news outlet Cailianshe reported, citing unidentified recruiting agents.
Foxconn didn't respond to a request for confirmation or details.
Protests have flared as the number and severity of outbreaks has risen across China, prompting areas including Beijing, the capital, to close neighborhoods and impose other restrictions residents say go beyond what the national government allows.
More than 253,000 cases have been found in the past three weeks and the daily average is increasing, the government reported Tuesday. This week, authorities reported China’s first COVID-19 deaths in six months.
The government will enforce its anti-COVID policy while “resolutely overcoming the mindset of paralysis and laxity,” said a spokesman for the National Health Commission, Mi Feng.
Early Thursday, the government reported a total of 31,656 cases found over the past 24 hours, including 27,646 without symptoms and 212 infections it said were acquired abroad. The total was up about 10% from the previous day.
Also Thursday, people in eight districts of Zhengzhou with a total of 6.6 million residents were told to stay home for five days, going out only to buy food or for medical treatment. Daily mass testing was ordered in what the city government called a “war of annihilation” against the virus.
The city government of Guangzhou, the site of the biggest outbreaks, announced Wednesday it opened 19 temporary hospitals with a total of almost 70,000 beds for coronavirus patients. The city announced plans last week to build hospital and quarantine facilities for 250,000 people.
Also Wednesday, Beijing opened a hospital in an exhibition center and suspended access to Beijing International Studies University after a virus case was found there. The capital earlier closed shopping malls and office buildings and suspended access to some apartment compounds.
Zen Soo reported from Hong Kong. AP news assistant Caroline Chen contributed.