After Adam Neumann walked away from WeWork with a severance package of $1.7 billion, plus a consultation fee of $185 million, his staff got less bountiful news: a fifth of them were to be axed as a result of the firm’s financial woes. Some 275 of the soon-to-be-fired employees banded together to make their demands clear. “We don’t want to be defined by the scandals, the corruption, and the greed exhibited by the company’s leadership,” they said in a letter. “We are asking to be treated with humanity and dignity so we can continue living life while searching to make a living elsewhere.”
The WeWorkers were then promised severance payments, continued benefits and other forms of assistance to help smooth their departures. And over in China, similar activism is on the rise. Although staff at the leading tech companies are nowhere near unionising, some have been trying to make their voices heard on fairer treatment – a message sent again in two high-profile labour disputes at Huawei and NetEase recently.
Li Hongyuan, who had worked at Huawei for 13 years, was asked to resign in January last year after lodging a whistleblowing report that his department had inflated sales figures, according to an article on Monday by Jiemian (which has now been scrubbed from the web).
After a protracted negotiation over his severance package, Huawei finally wired him Rmb300,000 ($42,590) in compensation, but oddly did so through a company secretary’s personal account.
Li was then arrested on suspicion of “blackmail and extortion” the following January, with the Rmb300,000 he received from Huawei cited as “hush money” for covering up his manager’s fraud. However, the local prosecutor’s office eventually dropped the charges due to “lack of evidence”. By then Li’s wife had presented a two-hour audio recording of a dialogue between Li and Huawei’s human resource department to prove his innocence, according to Sixth Tone. Li was released in August and recompensed Rmb107,522 for 251 days of wrongful detention.
In response, Huawei said it respected the decisions of the authorities involved, including the police, the procuratorate and the court. But it was notably unapologetic itself. “If Li Hongyuan thinks his rights and interests have been hurt, we encourage him to defend those rights through legal means, including suing Huawei,” the telecom giant challenged.
Li’s ‘victory’ followed news of another human resources debacle that emerged a week earlier at Beijing-based internet giant NetEase. Here a video game designer diagnosed with an untreatable heart disease was forced to resign in March. Faulting him for his work performance, the company then refused to offer a severance package (notwithstanding his five years of employment) or bonus. According to the game designer – who recounted his experience in a WeChat post on November 23 – NetEase also used underhand tactics to undermine his appeal against his performance review.
“I have experienced persecution, machination, surveillance, framing, threats, and even being pressured to leave the office by security guards,” the ex-employee said of his treatment by NetEase. The man also claimed that his contribution had always been of high standard, despite his illness. “Whether I worked overtime past midnight for several weeks in a row, or worked 996 for an extended period of time, I was never late the next day,” he insisted (The term “996” refers to the notorious working hours in China’s tech world with staff expected to do six days a week from 9am to 9pm, plus any overtime demanded, see WiC449.)
Both incidents sparked a response from the public. In the case of the Huawei firing, the sacking has drained some of the sweeping support the company has received since being caught in the crossfire of the Sino-US trade dispute (see WiC453). “An elephant stepped on an ant but he didn’t kill it, so he said to the ant, ‘You can step on me, too,’” mocked one weibo user about Huawei’s challenge to the former employee to take legal action, in one of the more widely shared posts.
“You may graduate from one of China’s top 985 universities, you work 996, you get fired at 35 years-old, get detained for 251 days, and when you defend your rights, the reports are 404 – censored,” was another of the popular postings on the Huawei case.
In a bid to garner more positive press, JD.com boss Richard Liu then made a bold move, saying that in the event of the death of one of its own employees, his e-commerce firm would take full financial responsibility for their children until they reach the age of 22.
As for NetEase, it admitted that its treatment of the game designer in question was “facile,” “brutal,” and “merciless”. But the apology – and a promise to pay his salary for a year after his redundancy – failed to stem the torrent of criticism from netizens who saw the firing as cold-blooded. Many believed NetEase was simply trying to get rid of staff at the lowest possible cost as it hunkers down for tougher times ahead – a course being taken by other internet firms too.
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