South African workers locked in factory, forced to make medical masks for coronavirus outbreak, official says

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A group of 14 workers in South Africa were found locked inside a factory where they were allegedly forced to make medical masks for nearly a week to meet the skyrocketing demand resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, a local official said Sunday.

Nomusa Dube-Ncube, a minister for economic development, tourism and environmental affairs in the KwaZulu-Natal province, said officials investigated the factory in the city of Durban after getting tips on a price-gouging scheme where individual masks were being sold for $40.

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“This is in connection to more than 14 employees who have been locked up in a factory since Monday last week,” Dube-Ncube said in a statement obtained by news outlets. “They were forced to manufacture hundreds of masks to meet the demand caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus.”

Officials found the workers living inside the factory in inhumane conditions, the BBC reported.

Security guards at the factory attempted to obstruct police as they tried to investigate the factory, according to broadcaster eNCA.

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Dube-Ncube condemned the owners of the factory, Chinese company Chen Lu, saying “no amount of words could ever describe my anger” following the report from investigators.

Police arrested the factory owner, who is believed to be a Chinese national, South African media outlet Independent Online reported.

Medical masks are in short supply around the world as health workers battle the rapidly spreading outbreak.

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South Africa entered the fourth day of its three-week lockdown Monday. There were more than 1,300 confirmed coronavirus cases and at least three deaths as of Monday.