Construction workers who toiled at one of Tesla’s sprawling so-called gigafactories will file a complaint Tuesday and refer a case to the federal Department of Labor detailing the exploitative working conditions they say they experienced while building the plant.
Whistleblowers came forward to complain of serious labor and employment violations during the construction of the electric car maker’s massive new plant in Austin, Texas, leaving them vulnerable to injury and wage theft.
Amid allegations of ongoing on-site hazards and accidents, one worker said his bosses falsified credentials at an unnamed subcontractor rather than actually provide him and others with the required vocational training that includes education on health, safety and worker rights – including the right to to refuse dangerous work.
Other whistleblowers report what they describe as wage theft, saying they were not paid at all or not given proper overtime compensation for their work at the hi-tech facility.
“Nobody deserves what happened at the gigafactory to happen to them, or their relatives, or anyone else,” said Victor, a worker who asked the Guardian to withhold his last name for fear of retaliation, in an exclusive interview about working conditions . adding, “I don’t think it was humane.”
Tesla’s 2,500-acre gigafactory in Austin was one of the hottest construction jobs in the US after workers smashed it into the ground in 2020, as a multi-billionaire entrepreneur and owner of Tesla, SpaceX and now Twitter, Elon Musk established a central American outpost for his automaker. From outside the project, the new factory sounded like an ideal place for any builder to work.
The company chose a convenient location along the Colorado River near the Austin airport, which Musk touted as a job opportunity for thousands, where he will produce 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 first opening.
But construction workers have painted a far less rosy portrait of the new factory, suggesting what should have been a dream job turned into a nightmare.
On Tuesday, Victor files a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha), part of the Department of Labor, alleging false certificates of completion for required training that he says never happened.
He told The Guardian his team was ordered to work on the roof of the metal plant at night with no lights, work atop turbines blowing smoke without protective masks, and otherwise put themselves in danger without basic information on how to stay safe.
In one case, Victor said he and his colleagues were expected to continue production on a flooded first floor—despite live wiring and cords in the water everywhere. He remembers telling his wife, “I’m going to die in this factory.”
On another occasion, Victor worked with a man so desperate for money that he returned to work wearing braces 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 keep building the plant over Thanksgiving last year, but say they never received the double-pay bonuses they were promised, according to the case referred Tuesday to the federal payroll and hours department. Ministry of Labour.
In an industry as fragmented as construction, with its vast network of contractors and subcontractors, workers’ rights advocates argue that developers like Tesla are ultimately the ones with the power and moral authority to demand fair labor standards.
But “Tesla wasn’t — didn’t seem — interested in using their power to make sure everyone could go home uninjured at the end of the day, with all the money they owe in their pockets,” said Hannah. Alexander, a staff attorney for Workers Defense Project, a nonprofit organization that helps the construction workers.
Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while Workers Defense Project did not share identifying information about the contractors and subcontractors accused of labor violations during an ongoing investigation for confidentiality reasons.
It’s not the first time Musk’s car company has been linked to security violations.
In recent years, Tesla’s plant in Fremont, California, has outpaced other major U.S. auto plants for Osha violations, with more than $236,000 in fines between 2014 and 2018. Similarly, workers at the plant outside Reno, Nevada, have spent an entire suffered a series of injuries, including amputations.
By 2020, when the company set its sights on Austin for another plant, allegations of too loose a relationship with workers’ rights had traveled far, and a broad coalition of unions, lawyers and county residents told the local government that any deal with Tesla should include strong employee protections.
But amid fierce competition from other cities also trying to win Tesla’s multibillion-dollar investment, local officials greenlit a plan to reel in the electric car maker with millions in tax cuts — and without the enforcement mechanisms lawyers warned they were facing. were needed.
Now some employees are dealing with the result.
“Everything we see is complicated by the fact that there isn’t much transparency or accountability because they decided not to include that independent oversight piece,” said David Chincanchan, policy director for the Workers Defense Project.
“In general, the state of the construction industry in Texas tends towards a race to the bottom,” Chincanchan claimed, where the exploitation of many vulnerable workers, often immigrants, is rampant.
Amid Tuesday’s filings, the Austin gigafactory is now under fire.
“Everyone is to blame,” Victor said. “Anyone could have prevented it. Tesla could have prevented it.”