IG Metall, Germany’s largest engineering union, Monday asked prosecutors to investigate whether Siemens had favoured a rival labour organisation and unduly influenced labour votes.
The legal complaint is the latest bad news for Siemens, which faces a separate bribery scandal, and the affair raises questions about management competence at the engineering group.
“We have the suspicion and indications that the AUB [independent workers group] was financed by Siemens to build up some kind of counter-union to IG Metall,” said Jürgen Peters, head of IG Metall.
Prosecutors are already questioning several people – including Siemens management board member Johannes Feldmayer, who denies wrongdoing – on suspicion of breach of fiduciary duties.
But the complaint – raised under a special labour law – was dismissed by Klaus Kleinfeld, Siemens’ chief executive, who told the FT on Friday: “On everything that I know about the overall legal situation such a complaint would not work.”
The affair has echoes of events at carmaker Volkswagen, where the head of personnel on the company’s management board was found guilty this year of having made illegal payments to the head of the works’ council – an IG Metall official – to curry favour in negotiations.
Siemens says it had a contract with companies run by Wilhelm Schelsky, the founder and head – until last Friday – of the AUB, since at least 2001 for training and other purposes. But late last year it questioned why the sum for additional services had risen substantially.
When it received no bills from Mr Schelsky, Siemens terminated the contract. Mr Schelsky denies wrongdoing.
Prosecutors are now examining whether any service was provided and people familiar with the investigation say they are also looking into whether Siemens indirectly financed the AUB. The AUB, which said it has never received any money from Siemens, is a rival to IG Metall, but not a union as such, as it does not take part in wage discussions.
Peter von Blomberg, an expert on business corruption with Transparency International-Germany, the anti-corruption watchdog, said if Siemens was found guilty of supporting the AUB through payments it would be “more serious than VW”.
The reason is that Siemens would have been attempting to subvert the labour system rather than simply buying favours from officials.
Mr Kleinfeld rejected the comparisons, saying it was unclear what the payments to Mr Schelsky were for. “I don’t know on what basis somebody can make a comparison between a situation that is well-known and largely cleared up at VW with one based on allegations under investigation.”