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Chinese overseas labor activists and allies have launched a campaign demanding accountability from Apple and Foxconn for their gross mistreatment of workers at a Chinese factory where half the world’s iPhones are made. They rallied in front of the Apple store on Fifth Avenue in New York City on November 6, handing out flyers inviting passersby to sign a petition with the support of labor and community organizations across the world.

Since late October, footage depicting brutal treatment at one of Foxconn’s largest factories has surfaced online and even been picked up by official media outlets in China. Online videos have shown workers — eager to escape the virus, hunger, and difficult working conditions in the locked-down factory complex — leaping over fences and running away despite facing severe weather conditions and long journeys back to their hometowns and villages.

The factory, located in the city of Zhengzhou in the province of Henan, is Apple’s largest production site in China. More than 200,000 workers are employed there. Foxconn is Apple’s top global supplier, and has drawn attention for its poor working conditions, most notoriously during a rash of suicides at its Shenzhen plant in 2010.

Trapped at Work

Foxconn workers are in the midst of peak season for production of the new iPhone 14, with management eager to fulfill its promises of on-time delivery to Apple.

Since October, the Zhengzhou factory complex has been pushing an inhumane closed-loop management regime, forbidding workers from leaving the area. Closed-loop systems require workers to live on-site in the factory complex for a certain period of time, so that the company can maintain production even during China’s regional Covid lockdowns, as well as preventing the likelihood of virus outbreaks among the workforce.

Despite this approach, new Covid outbreaks still emerged at the complex. But in order to continue production, Foxconn kept its gates shut, preventing workers from leaving while failing to maintain adequate conditions inside.

There were reports that infected workers had been forced to isolate in nearby unfinished dormitory buildings, without access to medical services and supplies. Some workers slept in the workplace to avoid infected workers living in the same dorms who were not isolated.

For those not infected, if they did not go to work, then they could not receive meal boxes which are only distributed after work — leaving them without food, since the restaurants inside the complex have all shut down. Workers complained they also lacked adequate protective gear.

Workers who tried to leave the factory complex were impeded, sometimes by force.

It’s Apple’s Responsibility

This is far from the first time that Foxconn’s labor practices have drawn scrutiny. News reports in 2019 and 2020 revealed that the company employs substantially more dispatch workers than is allowed under Chinese law. Dispatch workers, hired through private employment agencies, are common in China and enjoy even less job security than other kinds of temporary workers. Foxconn did not provide dispatch workers with the proper labor contracts and social benefits guaranteed by Chinese labor law — also a common practice among factories in China.

After the videos of workers fleeing surfaced, Foxconn’s mother company Hon Hai released a statement on October 30 saying that it will make improvements, guaranteeing more basic necessities for workers (providing three free meals a day and a workers’ care hotline), offering transportation to those who want to leave, and committing to reopening some restaurants in the complex. It also announced it was quadrupling bonuses for workers who stayed. But it continued to affirm 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 labor. Foxconn is still choosing to prioritize profit over workers’ health and human rights.

Apple’s statement last Sunday, released on the day of the New York action, was even more nefarious. The company stated that it would slow down production capacity in Zhengzhou to “prioritiz[e] the health and safety of the workers in our supply chain […] as we have done throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Yet Apple refuses to acknowledge the harms committed against workers under its watch, and does not mention that it has called for increased production in another Foxconn factory in Shenzhen.

Chinese state media has still not adequately reported on the workers’ conditions. With information tightly controlled by the ruling Communist Party, we need an independent third party to investigate to uncover the truth.

As Foxconn’s top source of orders, with products purchased by consumers across the world, Apple has the responsibility to arrange for such an investigation under the supervision of international trade unions, including U.S. unions and the International Trade Union Confederation.

Lone-Wolf Protest

Chinese overseas activists’ response to the egregious conditions in Zhengzhou follows a global decentralized movement echoing a rare lone-wolf protest against the Chinese regime in Beijing last month, just days before the ruling party’s National Congress.

The protestor, Peng Lifa, unveiled banners on the capital city’s Sitong Bridge, calling for all levels of Chinese civil society to strike and for people to take the streets in dissent against President Xi Jinping and the party’s autocratic rule.

This triggered a wave of demonstrations around the world by many overseas Chinese, including international students and other youth who reproduced Peng’s demands in posters plastered across college campuses and cities.

While Peng’s demands did not clearly tackle the capitalist nature of the Chinese state and economy, in his online manifesto he touched on the plight of migrant and other precarious workers, whose exploitation has intensified during the pandemic.

The revelations of the conditions in Zhengzhou’s Foxconn factory 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 protests beyond wildcat and brief lone-wolf actions. Given that, overseas Chinese can play an outsized role in building an effective dissident movement.

This solidarity movement with Foxconn workers by Chinese overseas activists themselves is an important follow-up to the Sitong Bridge demonstrations because it touches on how the Chinese regime’s political power is derived from its dependence on its capitalist sector.

A genuine struggle for democracy in China involves building a mass movement not only against authoritarianism, but also against authoritarian capital. This requires a critical attitude toward the regimes in both the U.S. and China, which promote the power of multinational corporations to prioritize profits and growth over workers’ lives.

To do this, we must continue to strengthen links between unions and other labor organizations across the world and this new generation of Chinese overseas activists.

#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.