Foxconn, the most prominent contract assembler of smartphones and other electronics, offered higher pay to attract more workers to the sprawling Zhengzhou factory to assemble the new iPhone 14 after thousands of employees fled the factory last month after complaining about unsafe working conditions.
The company has struggled to ramp up production hampered by COVID restrictions.
On Tuesday, chaos erupted after workers who had traveled long distances to take jobs at the Foxconn factory accused management of changing terms of their pay, according to an employee, Li Sanshan.
Li said he quit a catering job when he saw an advertisement promising the equivalent of $3,500 for two months of work. But Li said that once employees arrived, the company said they had to work two additional months at lower pay to receive the $3,500.
Videos online showed thousands of workers in surgical masks facing rows of police in white protective suits with plastic riot shields, in rare scenes of open dissent in China.
Police kicked and hit a protester with clubs after he grabbed a metal pole that had been used to strike him.
In one clip, several protesters surrounded a police car with officers inside and began rocking the vehicle back and forth while screaming.
The labor unrest in Zhengzhou comes 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 because of record infection numbers.
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 unrest at the Foxconn plant lasted through Wednesday morning as thousands of workers gathered outside dorms and clashed with vastly outnumbered factory security workers, before anti-riot police were called in to subdue the protesters.
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.
The factory makes Apple devices including the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max, and accounts for 70% of iPhone shipments globally.
Apple said it had staff at the factory and was “working closely with Foxconn to ensure their employees’ concerns are addressed”.
On Thursday, Foxconn blamed a “technical error” in the process of adding new employees and said they would be paid what they were promised.
“We apologize for an input error in the computer system and guarantee that the actual pay is the same as agreed and the official recruitment posters,” said a company statement. It promised to “try its best to actively solve the concerns and reasonable demands of employees.”
The apology was an about-face from a day earlier when Foxconn said it had fulfilled its payment contracts.
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 COVID outbreaks.
Foxconn, whose headquarters are in New Taipei City, Taiwan, 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, which is the equivalent of $1,400, to new hires employees who wanted to quit and return home, the finance news outlet Cailianshe reported, citing unidentified recruiting agents.
The dispute comes as the ruling Communist Party tries to contain a surge in coronavirus cases without shutting down factories, as it did in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. Its tactics include “closed-loop management,” or having employees live at their workplaces without outside contact.
Authorities promised last month to reduce economic disruption by cutting quarantine times and making other changes to China’s “zero-COVID” strategy, which aims to isolate every case. Despite that, the infection surge has prompted authorities to suspend access to neighborhoods and factories and to close office buildings, shops and restaurants in parts of many cities.
On Thursday, people in eight districts of Zhengzhou with a total of 6.6 million residents were told to stay home for five days. Daily mass testing was ordered for a “war of annihilation” against the virus.