„Wolf culture“ : How Huawei controls its employees in Europe
Former employees accuse Huawei of discrimination. How massively the company interferes in their private lives and how it keeps its staff in line is revealed by internal documents and covert audio recordings that netzpolitik.org and the media partners of The Signals Network have analysed.
What voices tell us from inside, on the other hand, belies the impression of a friendly atmosphere. They tell of a technology company that seems to see its employees first and foremost as raw materials from which it wants to forge its own success. About a company that moves Chinese employees around like chess pieces, that fires employees at will and where a quasi-military esprit de corps prevails. In Germany, the company sometimes violates the spirit, perhaps even the letter, of labour law.
Huawei’s „wolf culture“
Their accounts paint a picture of a company that is celebrated in public for it’s seemingly modern management philosophy, but at the same time pushes employees to their limits. Ex-employees speak of a toxic corporate culture that is promoted by the company’s management. The enormous pressure to succeed also plays a role.
Those who play along with all this are rewarded by Huawei with special payments linked to company shares. But what happens when workers refuse to put their lives entirely at the service of their employer is shown by internal emails and covert audio recordings obtained by netzpolitik.org and its media partners, as well as court cases in several countries. The cases dealt with discrimination and dismissals that should never have happened under the law.
In Spain, a case landed in court in 2018 that shows how Huawei apparently wants to have a say in the family planning of its employees. The plaintiff is a woman who goes by the pseudonym Ana. She accuses the company of sexist discrimination. Ana is Chinese, an expat. For almost a decade she worked in a senior position in the group’s finance department. Huawei sends her to Spain, where she marries a local.
When the woman wants to have a child, the trouble begins. Twice she suffers a miscarriage, twice she calls in sick afterwards. Huawei claims Ana’s work performance has declined and curbs her annual bonus, according to court documents. When she starts fertility treatment and calls in sick again, the company fires her.
Ana sues the company and wins. The court rules that the dismissal was not legal. A spokesperson for Huawei tells netzpolitik.org and its media partners that the Spanish judiciary has never ruled that the dismissal was due to discrimination against a pregnant woman.
However, in a written submission to court, Ana’s lawyer makes serious allegations against Huawei: „This decision to penalise the employee in her remuneration as a consequence for her leaves of absence due to abortions suffered during her pregnancies presents itself no longer as a hint but as direct proof in fact — consequence, of discrimination based on sex, derived from her two frustrated attempts at maternity.“
In the course of the proceedings, a pattern seems to emerge. A member of the workers’ council at Huawei’s subsidiary tells the court that she knows of at least five women who have become mothers and lost their jobs at Huawei. Three of them were Chinese.
We have spoken to several former employees who were fired by the company. Their accounts are similar: „I always did everything exactly by the book“, says one of our sources. Nevertheless, Huawei fired the source after several years of loyal service. The ex-employee doesn’t want to read their name on the internet, to avoid trouble with the company, but says their only offence was their age.
Huawei appears to take pride in its young workforce. Of 194,000 employees worldwide in 2019, only two per cent are older than 50 years, the company says on its website.
Huawei does not like it when someone is employed by the company beyond their 60th birthday, according to several of our sources. According to them, if older employees do not leave voluntarily, Huawei resorts to pressure.
The company’s strict, „wolfish“ company culture is part of its corporate folklore and at the same time part of everyday life. New employees at the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen have to endure a two-week boot camp, the Washington Post reported. Its components include daily training runs at five o’clock in the morning and courses that actually bear the name „brainwashing“.
How deeply military thinking is rooted in the company is also expressed in a framed calligraphy that, according to the New York Times, hangs on the wall at the company’s headquarters. In Chinese script, it reads: „Sacrifice is a soldier’s highest cause. Victory is a soldier’s greatest contribution.“
In Düsseldorf, working hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. are the rule, at least on paper, but according to former employees, Huawei demands much longer hours from employees in some departments. Ex-employees tell of meetings at the European headquarters that are scheduled at 10 p.m. and of offices that are bustling even on Sundays. Chinese employees sometimes slept in their offices, says a former employee.
This is hardly compatible with German labour law. For years, workers at the Düsseldorf site could only enter their arrival in a time recording system, our sources report, but the company did not allow records of the end of working days. Non-Chinese employees rebelled and have since been effectively exempted from the rule. Expats, however, are denied proper recording of their working hours, according to our sources.
A company spokesperson insists to netzpolitik.org and its media partners that working hours are not recorded, but only the attendance of employees. At the same time, he admits that there have indeed been complaints about the recording of attendance at the European headquarters.