Employees reveal concerns about working in Chinese firms

SINGAPORE: Security of tenure, long working hours, and heavy use of Mandarin were some of the common issues that Singaporeans face as employees of Chinese companies in the country, such as Huawei, Tencent, and its subsidiary.

In a CNBC investigative report, a former employee revealed that the hiring process at Tencent was conducted in English. But Mandarin is the main medium of communication at Tencent’s Singapore office. The language is also required for essential documents to accomplish a task. Many belatedly realized that being fluent in Mandarin is a requirement and not just a nice-to-have.


Another Tencent employee disclosed that the company recently announced internally the shift toward using English. But according to her, this could take time, as most of the systems and documents are currently in Mandarin.


One former Tencent subsidiary employee described the situation as “overwhelming” because meetings, training, and conversations with tech or finance staff were all delivered in Mandarin.


“It’s quite stressful, especially when you need to get a point across,” she cited.


A 2017 Huawei intern disclosed that even if he sent English emails or text messages to his colleagues, the replies were in Mandarin.


Although more than 74% of Singapore’s population is ethnically Chinese, the majority of the organisations in the country use English as the business language. However, language barriers were not considered a problem by the other employees and former employees who spoke to CNBC.


A current Huwaei employee said, “If you prefer English, [colleagues from China] can speak in English too. We try to meet in the middle.”


On work contracts, many of those who spoke to CNBC said it’s common for Chinese companies in Singapore to hire on one- to three-year contracts to guarantee an end after a certain duration.


A former Huawei employee said the firm did not give him a permanent role after a year because he believes the company had already filled the set quota on permanent hires. He said that there was nothing odd about the contract situation at Huawei, but he wanted more stability as an entry-level at the time.


Tencent and Huawei refused to comment on contract roles when CNBC contacted them.


Matthew Durham, a lawyer at Gall in Hong Kong specialising in employment matters in mainland China, said fixed-term contracts are common. Unlike in Singapore, employment laws in China allow employers to terminate contracts only for specific, limited reasons.


At Huawei, permanent staff and contract workers have different sets of employee referral benefits. According to an employee, Huawei’s contract staff and permanent staff get similar referral bonuses for junior roles. But a permanent employee who successfully refers someone to a senior post can get a bonus that’s thrice than that of a contract employee’s.


Durham said that some employers may opt to offer better bonuses or privileges to open-term contract employees who are likely to have stayed longer in the company.


Most people whom CNBC interviewed said China’s so-called "996" work culture has not been adopted in Singapore. The practice requires employees to work from 9 am to 9 pm for six days each week. Some said they believe their working hours are the same as other companies.


Patricia Teo, executive director of technology practice at recruitment company Kerry Consulting said Chinese companies are moving to improve work-life balance because "996" culture has been the “main deterrent” for prospective recruits in Singapore.


Tencent’s spokesperson sent an email to CNBC saying, “As a fast-paced global technology company, we know that striking a healthy work/life balance is critical for employees to do their best work.”


“We strive to offer a unique working environment that balances the energy of a start-up with the resources of a global innovation leader and will continue working with employees to develop a career path and work/life balance that is suitable for each individual,” the spokesperson added.


However, a former Tencent subsidiary employee said, “There’s no real rest time, only work time and standby time.”


Her bosses are based in China, and they sent her questions at night, during the weekend, and on public holidays.


“You could just ignore it, but would you really be able to relax knowing your boss is waiting for your reply?” she asked.


Another former employee at the same Tencent subsidiary disclosed that colleagues in China worked extra hours to offset, in advance, the Lunar New Year and Golden Week holidays. They would contact him during the weekend.


“You will feel like you’re working double, but you’re not getting any leave,” he said.


However, not everyone reported unjust long hours.


A former Tencent employee reported working hours beyond his contractual obligations, but only “occasionally maybe 9 am to 9 pm but definitely not Saturday. It’s like, '995.’”


“There are definitely teams that work a little later, but I wouldn’t think anyone is forced to work outside of what the standard timings are,” said a ByteDance employee whose colleague seconded his comment.


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