TikTok staff are quietly forming works councils around the world, marking a growing movement among employees at the Chinese-owned social media platform to organise and demand better working conditions.
A works council in Berlin is due to hold its first formal election on October 12, while similar representative bodies have been formed in Poland, France and South Korea over the past 18 months, moves which had not previously been reported.
It comes as TikTok staff in Europe and the US have recently complained of an aggressive working culture at the fast-growing company. TikTok said its teams work flexible hours to collaborate with colleagues around the world and are supported through health and wellbeing offerings.
TikTok increased its European turnover nearly six-fold in 2021 to $990mn but posted an $896mn loss, up by a third compared to 2020, driven largely by hiring more than 3,000 staff.
The formalisation of these councils reflects a push by some employees to ensure they are officially represented and consulted on issues including restructuring, working conditions and pay.
“This is a huge milestone for tech workers fighting for a fair deal from bosses on pay and working conditions,” said Martha Dark, director at tech justice group Foxglove. “Across the world, tech workers are organising, working together, building relationships across borders.”
Social media companies rarely recognise labour movements. Twitter and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, do not have formal unions but staff at Google-parent Alphabet, which owns YouTube, formed a union last year in what it called the first of its kind.
It is also rare for private Chinese companies to have organised labour groups internationally although some state-owned enterprises have branches of their own trade 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 that staff have input on issues such as wages, hours and working conditions. They represent all employees except executives, unlike trade unions, which act for the interests of their members and can organise strikes.
Former and current employees in both Germany and Poland have told the Financial Times they frequently had to work unsocial hours and overtime to meet demands. These people also felt unrealistic targets were set, their concerns regarding working practices were not listened to and they were reprimanded by management for failing to meet goals.
The more than 400 employees at 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 changes to technology.
Berlin-based staff have sought to form a council since 2020. They faced opposition from management, who appealed against previous efforts in the German labour courts. The law requires elections to take place in person and initial efforts were organised virtually during the pandemic.
Executives were also accused of trying to disrupt proceedings by joining the virtual elections using false names, multiple people involved said.
In Germany, one employee who had been campaigning for the works council left the company after they were reportedly pressured by management to quit, according to multiple people familiar with the departure. Another staff member helping to form the council was paid a settlement and asked to leave, two former employees said.
Under German law, employees who initiate the election process and works council members are protected against dismissal for the duration of their term of office and for one year after. In exceptional circumstances, their employment can be terminated with the consent of the works council.
TikTok said it does not comment on individual employees.
German trade union Verdi, which has been helping TikTok staff create the council, said it would seek to form a nationwide body. The social media platform has two main offices in Germany, in Hamburg as well as Berlin.
“Since Verdi got involved, TikTok has completely changed its attitude, became co-operative and stopped trying to block the works council,” said Hikmat El-Hammouri, a Verdi official.
“If you are a smart company, you know you cannot block this process because it is part of democracy and protected in the German constitution.”
Germany’s works councils are among the most powerful in the EU. Employers are obliged to hear their opinions before reaching certain decisions and to take the works council’s views into account. The council has some veto powers, which can be challenged in court.
In Poland, staff have the right to be informed in advance of the company’s business and any changes to structure, pay or contractual relations. Unlike Germany, they are not informed or consulted on individual dismissals of employees and cannot stop any company decisions.
The works council was formed in July this year, with a senior HR representative offering to lead the formation of the council which some employees were critical of, one person said.
“TikTok fully supported the establishment of a works council in Poland and adhered to the correct legal process from start to finish,” the company said.
TikTok said a works council was formed in France in May last year and a labour management 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. It declined to put the FT in touch with any employees from South Korea or France and the FT was unable to 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.