TikTok staff are quietly forming works councils around the world, marking a growing movement among employees of the Chinese-owned social media platform to organize and demand better working conditions.
A works council in Berlin is due to hold its first formal election on Oct. 12, while similar representative bodies have been formed in Poland, France and South Korea over the past 18 months, moves that had no been reported previously.
It comes as TikTok staff in Europe and the United States have recently complained about an aggressive work culture at the fast-growing company. TikTok said its teams are working flexible hours to collaborate with colleagues around the world and are supported by health and wellness offerings.
TikTok nearly sixfold its European revenue in 2021 to $990 million, but posted a loss of $896 million, up a third from 2020, mainly due to hiring more of 3,000 employees.
The formalization of these councils reflects a desire by some employees to ensure that they are officially represented and consulted on issues such as restructuring, working conditions and compensation.
“This is an important step for tech workers fighting for a fair deal from bosses on wages and working conditions,” said Martha Dark, director of tech justice group Foxglove. . “All over the world, tech workers are organizing, working together, building relationships across borders.”
Social media companies rarely recognize labor movements. Twitter and Meta, which own Facebook and Instagram, don’t have formal unions, but staff at Google-parent Alphabet, owner of YouTube, formed a union last year in what it called the first of its kind .
It is also rare that Chinese private companies have organized workers’ groups internationally, although some state-owned companies have branches of their own union overseas. TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance.
Works councils are a legal right in many EU countries for companies of a certain size, although their rights differ from state to state. They are designed to ensure staff have a say in matters such as wages, hours and working conditions. They represent all employees except managers, unlike unions which act in the interests of their members and can organize strikes.
Former and current employees in Germany and Poland told the Financial Times that they often had to work unsocial hours and overtime to meet demands. These individuals also felt that unrealistic goals had been set, that their concerns about work practices had not been listened to, and that they had been reprimanded by management for not meeting goals.
The more than 400 employees of TikTok’s Berlin office will elect 11 members who will be consulted on wages, hours and working conditions, as well as technical operations such as technological changes.
The Berlin-based staff have been seeking to form a council since 2020. They have faced opposition from management, which has appealed against earlier efforts in German labor courts. Elections are required by law to be held in person, and early efforts were held virtually during the pandemic.
The leaders were also accused of trying to disrupt the proceedings by joining the virtual elections under false names, several people involved said.
In Germany, an employee who had campaigned for the works council left the company after coming under pressure from management to quit, according to several people familiar with the departure. Another staff member helping to form the council received a settlement and was asked to leave, two former employees said.
Under German law, employees who initiate the election process and members of the works council are protected against dismissal during their term of office and for one year afterwards. In exceptional circumstances, their employment may be terminated with the agreement of the works council.
TikTok said it does not comment on individual employees.
German union Verdi, which helped TikTok staff set up the council, said it would seek to form a national body. The social media platform has two main offices in Germany, in Hamburg and Berlin.
“Since Verdi got involved, TikTok has completely changed its attitude, become cooperative and stopped trying to block the works council,” said Hikmat El-Hammouri, a Verdi official.
“If you’re a smart business, you know you can’t block this process because it’s part of democracy and protected by the German constitution.”
German works councils are among the strongest in the EU. Employers are required to listen to their opinion before taking certain decisions and to take into account the opinion of the works council. The council has certain veto powers, which can be challenged in court.
In Poland, staff have the right to be informed in advance of company activity and of any changes in structure, remuneration or contractual relations. Contrary to Germany, they are neither informed nor consulted on the individual dismissals of employees and cannot stop any decision of the company.
The works council was formed in July this year, with a senior human resources representative offering to lead the formation of the committee, which some employees criticized, one person said.
“TikTok fully supported the establishment of a works council in Poland and adhered to correct legal procedure from start to finish,” the company said.
TikTok said a works council was formed in France in May last year and a labor employers’ council in South Korea last December.
The company said it “fully supports employee rights” and promotes open lines of communication for staff through internal forums and anonymous surveys. He refused to put the FT in contact with any employees in South Korea or France, and the FT could not reach any of them independently.
Additional reporting by Madeleine Speed and Yuan Yang in London, Akila Quinio in Paris and Song Jung-a in Seoul.