China's mask makers cancel holidays, jack up wages as new virus spurs frenzied demand

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Chinese face mask manufacturers are reopening factories shut for a national holiday, promising workers up to four times their normal wages as consumers emptied out stock in stores in a race to protect themselves from the new coronavirus infection.

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The flu-like virus, which has killed 17 and infected nearly 600, is expected to spread further as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel domestically and abroad during the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, a time when factories across China usually close.

Worried about the potential for a global pandemic, China is putting Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak and a city of 11 million, on lockdown. The decision was praised by the World Health Organization as a strong one that could limit contagion but has also heightened fears about the virus.

“From what I have heard, the mask shortage is much, much more severe than what the public knows,” said Cao Jun, general manager of mask manufacturer Lanhine, which has a factory in east China’s Ningbo city.

“Almost all hospital workers nationwide are facing a huge shortage of masks, not just in Wuhan. That’s very terrible.”

Cao said the firm’s clients are demanding a combined 200 million masks per day compared to its normal production rate of 400,000 a day.

“At the moment, we have 20-plus people in the factory, working 24 hours. We’re offering them quadruple their wages per day,” Cao told Reuters. “We aim to ramp up output on Jan. 27 and be at full capacity on Feb. 1, when we’d have nearly 200 workers.”

Another manufacturer, CMmask, in eastern China’s Jiande city, told Reuters it was offering workers triple their wages if they came back.

“Our factory is out of stock now, but we have extended our working hours by four hours to 8 a.m. to 9 p.m,” said Hu Qinghui, CMmask’s deputy general manager.

U.S. firms 3M and Honeywell International issued statements saying that they would make every effort to ensure a continuous supply of masks during the holiday and that their official stores would not raise prices.

China’s industry ministry on Wednesday launched an “emergency coordination effort”, asking local authorities to work with factories “to overcome labor difficulties during the Spring Festival, accelerate production and do their utmost to increase supply to the market,” state media reported.

Firms from drugmakers to makers of thermometers have also said they would step up production. Xinlong Holding, a manufacturer of filters and fabrics for masks, said some of its factories had “abandoned the Spring Festival holiday.”

Tech giant Alibaba Group told the state-backed China News Service it was working with 92 mask manufacturers, which currently have a combined supply of 42 million masks. Another 1.57 million more will be made before the week-long holiday officially starts on Friday, it said.

E-commerce platforms, including Alibaba’s Taobao, and Pinduoduo Inc have also pledged to crack down on any vendors who might try to raise prices of masks and disinfectant products.

Reporting by Lusha Zhang and Brenda Goh; Additional reporting by Sophie Yu and Roxanne Liu in Beijing; Editing by Edwina Gibbs