The factory, run by Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group and billed as the world’s biggest iPhone facility, had imposed strict coronavirus control measures on campus about 10 days ago. The rules included daily tests and a ban on dining in canteens, the Post reported last week.
Workers had turned to social media to complain about living conditions, saying they were having to stay with Covid-positive colleagues, and raising concerns about further transmission and under-reporting of cases.
Video clips circulating widely over the weekend appeared to show some workers had fled the factory in the Henan provincial capital, choosing to walk back to their hometowns to avoid checkpoints, as China continues with its strict zero-Covid approach to all outbreaks.
Social media posts, some from the workers themselves and others from passers-by, showed groups of people walking along a highway and through small country roads, as residents along the route put up stalls to distribute food, water and clothes to them.
On Sunday, mainland media cited the official WeChat account of the Zhengzhou government to report that Foxconn was arranging bus services for released staff, with at least seven pickup points.
Workers choosing to remain on campus would be given good meals, with regular PCR tests carried out to keep tabs on infection, the notices said. Regular disinfection of production lines and dormitories would also be carried out, the company promised.
Several cities from around Henan had earlier issued public letters, urging the fleeing Foxconn workers to contact local authorities and promising to lay on buses to bring them home.
“Dear fellow people from Xihua county, please inform the neighbourhood of your intention to return two days in advance and produce a negative PCR test for two days. We will arrange vehicles to go to the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou to bring you home,” read one letter from Xihua county in the city of Xuchang.
Earlier on Sunday, financial news website Yicai.com quoted an unidentified official at the Zhengzhou plant as saying the company was in talks with “relevant authorities of Henan province” to discuss suitable measures.
The factory had been under closed-loop management for the previous 10 days, with workers only moving point to point for their shifts, the official said.
Those heading home would have to undergo seven days of centralised quarantine followed by three days of home isolation, the statements from the various city authorities said.
Such public notices had been sent by at least seven counties and cities in Henan after social media posts showed workers walking along, dragging luggage behind them.
The posts also sparked questions online about the severity of the Covid-19 situation in Zhengzhou, where authorities reported 32 new infections for Saturday.
The Foxconn factory, which employs around 300,000 people, earlier rejected widespread rumours that a large number of workers had contracted Covid-19.
There had only been a small outbreak at the plant, it said on October 26, adding that the impact on operations was “controllable”.
Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of nationalist daily Global Times and originally from Henan, commented on the viral clips of Foxconn staff “abnormally leaving” the Zhengzhou factory.
“What’s going on with the epidemic control in Zhengzhou?” he posted on Weibo.
“The official account of three Covid cases and 24 asymptomatic infections for Friday was not very serious, but many Zhengzhou residents I spoke to on the phone said their neighbourhoods were under lockdown, which had raised doubts about whether the actual number of infections was more than officially reported.”
The authorities should try harder to reassure the public and tackle the outbreak, he added.
Zhengzhou, known as China’s iPhone city, has imposed a semi-lockdown on its 10 million residents, requiring people in some areas to stay at home and others to remain within their residential district.
Non-essential businesses have been ordered to close, with only a few companies allowed to continue operations.
An Wei, the Communist Party chief for Zhengzhou, said the city was facing a “severe and complicated situation and daunting task of epidemic control”, local state media reported on Sunday.
An vowed to ensure a quick return to normal daily life but did not mention the situation in the Foxconn factory, according to the Zhengzhou Daily report.