On Tuesday, construction workers who worked at one of Tesla’s so-called sprawling gigafactories will file a complaint and referral of the case to the Federal Department of Labor, detailing the exploitative working conditions they claim they experienced during the construction of the plant. .
Whistleblowers have come forward to report serious labor and employment violations during construction of the electric car maker’s massive new facility in Austin, Texas, which left them vulnerable to injury and wage theft.
Amid allegations of constant hazards and on-site accidents, one worker alleged that his bosses at an anonymous subcontractor forged credentials instead of actually providing him and others with the required job training which included health, safety, and health education. workers’ rights, including the right to refuse hazardous work.
Other whistleblowers are reporting what they describe as wage theft and claim that they have not been paid at all or have not received adequate overtime compensation for their work in the hi-tech facility.
“Nobody deserves what happened in the gigafactory to have happened to them, their family members, or anyone else,” said Victor, a worker who asked the Guardian to hide his last name for fear of retaliation, in an exclusive interview. on working conditions. adding: “I don’t think it was human.”
Tesla’s 2,500-acre Austin gigafactory was one of the hottest construction jobs in the U.S. after workers opened its doors in 2020, as multibillion-dollar entrepreneur and owner of Tesla, SpaceX and now Twitter, Elon Musk, has erected a central US outpost for his automaker. From the outside of the project, the new plant looked like the ideal place for any builder’s work.
The company has chosen a convenient location along the Colorado River near the Austin Airport, which Musk has advertised as a job opportunity for thousands, where it will manufacture the long-delayed Cybertruck electric pickup. In April, Musk wore sunglasses and a black cowboy hat to a “Cyber Rodeo” to celebrate the venue’s initial opening.
But the construction workers painted a much less rosy portrait of the new factory, suggesting that what was supposed to be a dream job has turned into a nightmare.
On Tuesday, Victor filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha), part of the Department of Labor, for allegedly false certificates of completion for the required training which he says never took place.
He told the Guardian His team was tasked with working on the roof of the metal factory at night with no lights, working above the turbines that blew smoke without protective masks, and otherwise putting themselves at risk with no background information on how to stay safe.
In one case, Victor said he and his colleagues should have continued production on a flooded first floor, despite observing that there were live cables everywhere and cables in the water. He remembers telling his wife: “I’m going to die in this factory.”
On another occasion, Victor worked with a man who was so desperate for money that he returned to work with a brace after breaking his arm on the spot.
“Every day there was a security problem,” he told the Guardian.
Other workers sacrificed time with their loved ones to continue building the factory over Thanksgiving last year, but say they never received the double pay bonuses they were promised, according to the case reported Tuesday to the wages and hours division. of the Federal Department of Labor.
In a fragmented industry like construction, with its vast network of contractors and subcontractors, advocates for workers’ rights argue that developers like Tesla are ultimately the ones with the power and moral authority to demand fair labor standards.
Yet “Tesla wasn’t – didn’t seem – interested in using their power to make sure everyone could go home at the end of the day injury-free, with all their money in their pockets,” said Hannah Alexander, a staff attorney. for the Workers Defense Project, a non-profit organization that helps construction workers.
Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while the Workers Defense Project did not share identifying information on contractors and subcontractors accused of labor violations for confidentiality reasons in the midst of a pending investigation.
This isn’t the first time Musk’s automaker has been linked to security breaches.
In recent years, the Tesla plant in Fremont, California has far surpassed other major US auto plants for Osha violations, incurring fines of more than $ 236,000 between 2014 and 2018. Likewise, at its factory outside Reno, Nevada, workers suffered a number of injuries, including amputations.
By 2020, when the company set its sights on Austin for another factory, allegations of too casual a relationship with workers’ rights had traveled far and a broad coalition of union groups, supporters and county residents told the local government that any deal with Tesla should include strong protections for workers.
But amid stiff competition with other cities that are also looking to win Tesla’s billionaire investment, local officials have given the green light to a plan to lure the electric carmaker with millions in tax refunds – and without the mechanisms of application warned were needed.
Now, some workers are facing the result.
“Everything we are seeing is complicated by the fact that there is not much transparency or accountability because they have decided not to include that piece of independent monitoring,” said David Chincanchan, political director of the Workers’ Defense Project.
“In general, the state of the construction industry in Texas tends to be just a race to the bottom,” said Chincanchan, where the exploitation of many vulnerable, often immigrant, workers is rampant.
Amid the papers on Tuesday, the Austin gigafactory is now under fire.
“Everyone’s at fault,” Victor said. “Anyone could have prevented it. Tesla could have prevented it. “