iPhone maker Foxconn lifts wages, prepares backup for Covid-hit China plant

FOXCONN Technology Group is preparing to bring backup production online and raise hourly wages by more than a third, after an exodus of workers threatened to disrupt output at the world's largest iPhone plant ahead of the holidays.

Foxconn, whose listed vehicle is Hon Hai Precision Industry, is grappling with mounting concern that a Covid flare-up at its main Zhengzhou plant could hurt production just as Apple gears up for the crucial year-end season. Its shares fell 1.4 per cent on Monday (Oct 31), the worst decline in three weeks.

Social media erupted over the weekend with photos and videos of workers departing the Zhengzhou plant, some on foot, to return to hometowns miles away. They were seeking to escape hastily enacted Covid-prevention measures that have left many of the 200,000 staff grappling with inadequate living conditions. Other videos depicted local residents offering food and shelter to some of the departing staff. Bloomberg hasn't verified the authenticity of the social media content.

To keep plants running at fill speed, Foxconn is raising hourly pay by as much as 36 per cent to roughly 38 yuan (S$7.37) an hour for key positions, compared with the early days of iPhone 14 production around September, people familiar with the matter said, asking not to be identified because the move isn't public.

On the operations side, Foxconn has said it may boost capacity at alternative sites. The Taiwanese company also makes iPhones at a factory in Shenzhen, which together with Zhengzhou cranks out the majority of the world's iPhones. Representatives for the company declined to comment on wage plans.

"Further developments will be important as 4Q is the peak season for iPhone shipments," Morgan Stanley analysts wrote. "The potential impact on iPhone production is worth monitoring as Zhengzhou is one of Hon Hai's major production sites, particularly for iPhone assembly."

Read more: Workers Leave Biggest IPhone Plant to Escape Covid Curbs

The rising tensions underscore the economic and social costs of Xi Jinping's Covid Zero policy - a rigorously policed system of mass testing and lockdowns that has fostered growing resentment. It also shows the potential risk to global supply chains and products from China's approach.

Discontent has been brewing among staff at Foxconn's factory in Zhengzhou. The emergence of Covid cases led to the implementation of a closed loop system, where workers' movements are strictly limited. Food became a source of unrest after the company shut cafeterias at the manufacturing site known as "iPhone City."

At one point, only workers on production lines were given meal boxes, with those infected or afraid to leave their company-provided dormitories given more basic fare like bread and instant noodles, Bloomberg News reported. On Monday, Foxconn said the local government had agreed to let it re-open cafeterias on campus.

It's unclear how many workers were allowed to leave Foxconn. The company hires many temporary staff from nearby regions to assemble electronics including Apple's latest iPhone 14 devices. Foxconn last week described the situation as a "small" outbreak.

"We are deeply aware that it's a 'protracted war' in terms of how to take care of over 200,000 workers and their security" in Zhengzhou, Foxconn said in a Monday stock exchange filing.

The "Zhengzhou park operation, in coordination with the government's epidemic prevention, is gradually coming under control," Foxconn said in a brief statement on Sunday. "The Group will also coordinate back-up production capacity with our other parks to reduce any potential impact."

The discontent comes at a crucial time for Apple, which launched the iPhone 14 during an unprecedented slump in global electronics demand. While faring better than other smartphone makers, it's backed off plans to increase production of its new iPhones this year after an anticipated surge in demand failed to materialise, Bloomberg has reported. Apple reported better-than-expected results Thursday but warned of a holiday slowdown.

Any disruption at Zhengzhou threatens to snarl Apple's finely orchestrated supply chain. Thousands of components from Europe to Asia are shipped into Zhengzhou, assembled manually into devices, then shuttled off to the rest of the world. BLOOMBERG

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