Last May, a man by the name of Gregor Lesnik was working on the construction of the new paint shop at Tesla’s Fremont facility when he fell from the roof and broke both his legs, a number of his ribs, received a concussion, and tore ligaments in his knees.
Following the accident, Lesnik filed a lawsuit alleging that (courtesy of The Mercury News):
- Eisenmann USA wrote letters to the US Embassy on behalf of Lesnik and as many as 200 foreign workers stating they would supervise employees at a US auto plant. Most of the Vuzem workers were nonsupervisory laborers and tradesmen.
- Tesla issued company security badges to the foreign workers, recorded their time on site and shared responsibility for setting safety conditions.
- Vuzem required foreign employees to regularly work between 60 and 70 hours a week. Vuzem paid Lesnik an average of €800 per month, or about $900, for a rate of less than $5 per hour. Lesnik was promised an equal amount when he returned home, but the company never paid the balance.
- The companies violated wage and employment laws and benefitted from the cheap labor of foreign workers. Workers were promised $12.70 an hour based on a standard workweek. The suit estimates they are due $2.6 million in overtime and premium pay.
Perhaps not surprisingly, none of the contractors, nor Tesla, has accepted legal responsibility for the hours, for the costs of all of this, and for the (arguable) abuse of the B1/B2 visa system. The B1/B2 visa is a nonimmigrant visa for tourism and business that’s intended to allow foreigners the option of performing limited business/work within the US — it’s not intended (openly anyways) to be used as a means of bringing cheap construction labor into the country.
Here are further details:
Recruited by a small Slovenian company called ISM Vuzem, Lesnik, 42, and his co-workers were flown into the US for months at a time, housed in nondescript apartments, and shuttled to the Tesla plant six and sometimes seven days a week, according to workers and the suit.
While foreign workers can obtain B1 visas for supervisory duties, the workers at the Tesla plant were simply installing pipes and welding parts — hands-on work banned by the terms of their visas, according to immigration experts and court documents. Workers interviewed by this news organization said they have worked on jobs under similar arrangements around the country.
…The company overseeing Tesla’s expansion project — Eisenmann, a German-based manufacturer of industrial systems — also denied in court that it had legal responsibility for Lesnik. Vuzem acknowledged that it hired Lesnik but denies his claims. Tesla and Eisenmann won a preliminary effort to be removed from the lawsuit, but an Alameda County Superior Court judge has allowed Lesnik’s amended complaint against them to move forward.
…Eisenmann also helped with the paperwork. Court filings show Lesnik’s visa application included a letter to the US consulate from Robert Keller, Eisenmann’s Chicago area-based US purchasing manager who was also listed as Lesnik’s US contact. Keller wrote that Lesnik would be working for yet another European subcontractor with “specialized knowledge” of Eisenmann’s equipment to build a new paint shop for BMW in South Carolina. The visa application included a reservation at a Days Inn in South Carolina, and listed Lesnik as a “supervisor of electrical and mechanical installation.”
In the letter, Keller wrote: “His assignment will involve multiple border entries, but in no way adversely affect the employment of citizens of the United States.”
It should be noted here that, while Lesnik was apparently paid only around $5 an hour for his work, pay for equivalent work done by American citizens in the region could cost $52 an hour (or even more).
Tesla issued a public response to the article on its website, noting (amongst other things):
At Tesla, we aspire to operate on the principles of hard work and exceptional performance, but always tempered by fairness, justice and kindness. There are times when mistakes are made, but those are the standards to which we hold ourselves. With respect to the person at the center of this weekend’s article in the Mercury News, those standards were not met. We are taking action to address this individual’s situation and to put in place additional oversight to ensure that our workplace rules are followed even by sub-subcontractors to prevent such a thing from happening again.
…The article describes how Mr. Lesnik came to this country, the conditions under which Vuzem employed him and others to do their work, and how Mr. Lesnik ended up being injured while on the job. Assuming the article is correct, we need to do right by Mr. Lesnik and his colleagues from Vuzem. This is not a legal issue, it is a moral issue. As far as the law goes, Tesla did everything correctly. We hired a contractor to do a turnkey project at our factory and, as we always do in these situations, contractually obligated our contractor to comply with all laws in bringing in the resources they felt were needed to do the job.
…Tesla will be working with Eisenmann and Vuzem to investigate this thoroughly. If the claims are true, Tesla will take action to ensure that the right thing happens and all are treated fairly.
Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk commented publicly as well, before this press release, noting in a tweet that changes would be forthcoming:
Only heard about this today. Sounds like the wrong thing happened on many levels. Will investigate and make it right.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 16, 2016