Foxconn’s megaplant in Zhengzhou, the world’s biggest iPhone factory, is grappling with a fresh Covid-19 outbreak after the Chinese government abruptly lifted its zero-Covid restrictions. With the company under pressure to catch up on much-delayed iPhone 14 Pro production, some employees have been told to continue assembling the smartphones even after becoming ill.

Employees on production lines are provided with N95 masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19. But workers say that it’s still easy to catch the disease inside dorm rooms, where eight people sleep together in close proximity. Seven workers confirmed to Rest of World that they, along with many of their roommates, contracted the virus after joining the factory this month. Three said they were asked to stay on the job despite showing symptoms. 

One Foxconn employee in his 30s, who requested anonymity to discuss work conditions freely, told Rest of World last week that several colleagues had been working despite having a fever. Although they felt sick, the worker spent 11 hours inserting screws into iPhones on Saturday. “I had trouble breathing by 7 p.m.,” he said in a text after work. “Was barely able to finish the shift.” He worked 10 hours the next day. 

The employee said his supervisor also advised workers not to get tested so they could stay on the production line. Foxconn bans those with positive test results from production facilities and dormitories. A growing number of Covid-19 patients have been housed in facilities including a vocational school and an unfinished apartment complex, according to workers. Some workers said they were given sufficient food and medicine, while others complained of dirty toilets, food shortages, and a lack of medical care. Some employees told us that they were worried about losing income by taking sick leave.

Foxconn and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comments. The latest Covid-19 case surge could strain Foxconn’s efforts to speed up production ahead of Christmas and the Lunar New Year holidays in January. “Right now, demand outstrips supply three to one,” Dan Ives, a tech analyst at Wedbush Securities in the U.S., told Rest of World. “It’s causing massive iPhone shortages at the worst possible time.” 

Jenny Chan, a sociologist with Hong Kong Polytechnic University who has studied labor conditions at Foxconn, said that as Covid-19 cases surge at the Zhengzhou plant, management faces a challenge taking care of workers while trying to accelerate production. “The iPhone City has already undergone two waves of labor unrest,” Chan said. “This is the time it’s supposed to really restore production capacity.”

Production at the Zhengzhou plant, which employs 200,000 people and is the only one that makes premium iPhone models like the iPhone 14 Pro, has been severely disrupted by Covid-19 outbreaks since October, when some workers fled the factory to avoid getting infected and isolated. The factory also lost more than 20,000 new hires after some of them protested against pay and Covid-19 policies. Following the turmoil, Foxconn founder Terry Gou lobbied Chinese leaders to ease Covid-19 controls, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Under the zero-Covid policy, manufacturers in China had implemented a “closed-loop” system, confining workers inside factory campuses and asking them to get tested every day. Now that restrictions have been lifted, causing Covid-19 cases to swell across China, workers are being asked to forgo sick leave to keep the world’s factory running. 

Foxconn was able to recruit more workers in December by promising some $1,500 in additional monthly bonuses, according to a contract seen by Rest of World. The contract states that workers would still be entitled to the money if they have to spend time in quarantine, but some workers are reluctant to take time off, citing concerns about poor quarantine conditions and a potential loss in overtime pay. 

In contrast to the panic triggered by the October outbreak, workers say coughing and fever have become common occurrences on the production lines. One 30-year-old new recruit, who also requested anonymity, told Rest of World he worked with a fever for two days as he waited for his Covid-19 test result last week. His managers also seemed sick, as they scolded slow workers in raspy voices. “They couldn’t even walk steadily,” the worker said. “Weren’t they Covid positive as well?”