Xiao Han was just wrapping up the weeklong quarantine that marked the beginning of his latest stint working at the sprawling manufacturing complex in Zhengzhou, China, known as iPhone City when violence erupted there in late November. A large part of the 200,000-person workforce had already spent weeks living in forced isolation in trash-filled dormitories, subsisting on meager rations because management wanted to keep churning out Apple Inc. devices while squelching a Covid-19 outbreak. On Nov. 23 hundreds of workers, angry to learn they might not get the wages they’d been promised unless they kept at their jobs throughout the Spring Festival and into mid-March, pushed past the security staff guarding their living quarters, setting off a physical confrontation with riot police.
“It was total chaos,” says Xiao, who adds that some of his co-workers were injured in the clash. “I’d never expected things could go this bad.”