The new Corporate business conduct guidelines of the Chinese telco giant forbid its employees from voicing any political opinions. A Facebook post or a viewpoint expressed aloud during a lunch break has the same value as a political rally
The Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has tightened its employees' freedom of expression, extending even to Europe, according to some confidential documents obtained by the newspaper Il Foglio. The company's internal code of conduct, signed each year by Huawei's employees outside China by the end of October, imposes rules that appear to contradict the principles of freedom of expression – principles set out in the Italian Constitution, the National Labour Code and the European Labour Law. Chapter 5, paragraph 3, version 4.0 of Huawei's "Corporate business conduct guidelines", – a document that is "approved by (the founder) Ren Zhengfei" and updated to March 2019 – states that “The Company focuses only on business. Therefore, without approval, an Employee must not participate in any political activities or voice any political opinions”. It is a blanket prohibition. In other words, a Facebook post or an opinion expressed aloud during the lunch break has the same value as a political rally. The document continues: “Without obtaining prior consent from the Company, Employees are not allowed to participate in any community activities in the name of the Company or as an Employee of the Company”. Any. If Huawei is “negatively impacted” by such “activities”, "the Employee must resign from the Company”.
The same chapter of the last year's guidelines, which Huawei employees signed by October 30, 2018, stated this requirement a little differently: "The Company is a business-oriented company. Therefore, without authorization, an Employee must not, in the name of the Company or as an employee of the Company, participate in any political activities, voice any political opinions, or participate in any community activities”. There is a subtle difference between the two versions, but an important one: until March 2019 Huawei's employees could not express their political ideas "in the name of the company", now they just can't do it at all. It is common for large companies to have an internal code of conduct, but about the issue of freedom of expression they use generic rules that prohibit discrimination based on political opinions, among other things. At the beginning of the Huawei paper, in the "basic guidelines" section, the rules state that prohibition in the following terms: “Discrimination or different treatment based on race, colour, religion, gender, age, nationality, genetics, disability, or other factors unrelated to the Company's legitimate business interests”. Political opinions are not mentioned.
When questioned by Il Foglio, Huawei Italia did not deny this, and adds: "This is an internal document that regulates the behaviour which the employee is expected to have in the performance of his corporate duties and work activities. Therefore, it does not intend to limit the private exercise of political activity or the freedom of expression of the employees, but refers to the conduct that the employee should have when participating in events or political activities as a representative of the company or in the exercise of its business functions. The corporate codes of conduct refer to the common practices adopted by multinational companies and have as their main objective to protect its corporate reputation and business development, together with its customers and employees”. But in the recently amended document the company simply prohibits employees from speaking about politics, not as representatives of the company but as employees.
The Italian Confederation of Workers' Trade Unions (CISL), as Il Foglio understands, has no relationship with Huawei employees in Italy. Riccardo Saccone, head of the TLC area of the Italian General Confederation of Labour, says that "we are trying to manage a dialogue" with Huawei but for now, compared to other companies, "it could be better."
"Freedom of participation in political or trade union activities is guaranteed both by Italian labour law and by supranational sources," Maurizio Del Conte, associate professor of Labour Law at the Bocconi University, tells Il Foglio "which obviously prevail over company regulations. The case of an employee using the company name to promote his political career is different.”
The issue is a particularly sensitive one. Not only could the employees of a company be forced to avoid talking about any issues that the employer does not like, but also, after the Chinese NBA boycott following a post on social networks on Hong Kong, the problem of self-censorship has extended to involve business with China in general. Huawei is a private company, but like all business giants it has a very close relationship with the central government.
Today Huawei Italia will inaugurate its new office in Rome, Italy. Together with Thomas Miao, CEO of Huawei Italia, and Li Junhua, Chinese ambassador, the Italian institutions will be represented by Manlio Di Stefano, Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs. Maybe he'll have some questions to ask them.
Update: On Wednesday evening, October 23th, Huawei Italia changed the schedule of the ceremony. Manlio Di Stefano, Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, will not be present at the opening of the new headquarters of Huawei in Rome. None of the Italian institutions will attend.