Huawei's chip ambitions rumored to be at the cost of "brutal" work conditions

Huawei's chip ambitions rumored to be at the cost of "brutal" work conditions
Huawei is alive and kicking. Despite all the sanctions that the US has been imposing for five years, the tech behemoth has officially returned.

Apart from the bombastic unveiling of the Mate 60 Pro (the first 5G-enabled Huawei phone since the 2020's Mate 40 Pro), there are several reasons to believe that Huawei is indeed back:

However… is there a dark side to this sudden revival? Is there a "brutal" work environment, as suggested by recent reports?

Let's dive deep!

What's with the "nm" obsession? 

And why is 5G a big deal?

Okay, if you're not tuned in the whole Huawei vs. USA saga, you may be wondering what's going on.

First things first.

Chipsets, or SoC are incredibly important. This is what drives your phone, in a nutshell.

SoC, or System-on-Chip, combines all or most components of a computer or other electronic system onto a single chip. It includes a central processing unit (CPU), memory interfaces (for RAM, ROM), input/output devices interface, and often other features such as a graphics processing unit (GPU), a communications module (e.g., Wi-Fi, Bluetooth), and more.

It's 2024, so 5G is no longer some kind of exotic mystery. In fact, 5.5G, or 5G-Advanced, is starting to appear. If you ask Huawei, they'll tell a different story. And no wonder, since they were sanctioned by the US five years ago.

In May 2019, the U.S. Department of Commerce added Huawei to its Entity List, a decision that effectively banned the company from buying parts and components from U.S. companies without U.S. government approval. Under the order, Huawei needs a U.S. government license to buy components from U.S. suppliers. 5G components, to be precise.

That's why when the Mate 60 Pro materialized last year, it was a sensation. This phone should've never been made, according to US officials, yet here it is, and there they were, getting all angry and frustrated.

As far as the "nm thing", here's the deal:

In the context of System-on-Chip (SoC) technology used in mobile phones, "nm" (nanometer) refers to the size of components on the chip, such as transistors. One nanometer equals one billionth of a meter, highlighting the incredibly small scale of these components. Smaller nm technology allows for more efficient and powerful chips by packing more transistors into a smaller space.

So, here's an example:

  • If a chip is manufactured using a 7nm process, it means that the key components (like transistors) on that chip are as small as 7 nanometers in size.
  • As nm technology advances (e.g., from 7nm to 5nm), chips become more powerful and more energy-efficient, contributing to improved performance in mobile phones.

On chip independence

If Huawei could just buy the tools it needed to produce better, smaller and more advanced chips, they probably would. However, the US has limited the company's options.

Recently, the Biden administration made moves to persuade the Netherlands to prevent ASML from servicing certain machines in China, marking a step in the US's efforts to limit Beijing's technological advancements.

ASML is the Dutch company that makes advanced extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) machines. These machines are essential for producing today's smallest, most efficient chips, such as those in the iPhone 15 Pro models. We rely on these tools to produce 2nm chips – the next big thing in tech.

This is what Huawei needs.

And if they can't get it from the outside, well, they just have to build such tools on their own and be independent of the international markets.

The new plant and the "brutal" conditions

Have you ever wondered, while looking at your phone, how many hours of work are needed for the handset to materialize? Have you ever wondered what the work conditions are like during those manufacturing hours?

According to a report by Nikkei Asia, Huawei is building a massive semiconductor research and development (R&D) facility in Shanghai with a staggering investment of $1.66 billion (12 billion yuan).

Huawei is enticing staff for its new center with salary packages that reportedly reach double those offered by local chipmakers, according to industry executives and the report.

The company has successfully recruited numerous engineers, including some from rival firms. However, despite the attractive compensation, Huawei's working environment is said to be demanding, as noted by chip industry managers.

Unnamed sources say that working for Huawei's new project is "brutal".

  • The source says that the new work scheme is not "996". The "996" code means "working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week".
  • So, the new work shifts will "literally be 007 – from midnight to midnight, seven days a week. No days off at all".

That's according to a Chinese chip engineer who talked to the report's author.

While I'm aware that exploitation is very real in many parts of the world, I simply can't imagine that engineers are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If your goal is to ruin your brand-new project and scare everyone off with non-stop working shifts, sure. Go ahead – exhaust several people to their death and you'll succeed in your goal of ruining things.

However, If you want to compete and run a successful R&D facility, then you simply can't have people working 24 hours a day week after week. That's not a mining company from a Quentin Tarantino movie, one where "until the day you die, all day, every day, you will be swingin' a sledgehammer, turnin' big rocks into little rocks".

Probably, the report is exaggerating things quite a bit. It's very possible that there are some who work round the clock for a day, or two. Probably there are many who work seven days a week.

Huawei's new laptop makes US official angry

While the world is expecting the next 5G-enabled big thing from Huawei (and US officials are getting the night sweats), the Far East behemoth managed to get US lawmakers mad once again.

That's a talent, bravo, Huawei!

Joking aside, Huawei did actually unveil its first AI-enabled laptop, the MateBook X Pro. It's powered by Intel's new Core Ultra 9 processor. This is a big no-no for US lawmakers, who were shocked and angered, because it suggested to them that the Commerce Department had approved shipments of the new chip to Huawei.

My final thoughts are that we're just at the beginning of a beautiful US-Huawei rivalry.

I don't have the slightest intention of buying a phone from the upcoming Mate 70 line, yet I can't wait for it to emerge and stir up the hive.

After all, that's what competition is all about!

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