Construction workers who worked at one of Tesla’s sprawling so-called gigafactories will file a complaint and case referral with the federal Department of Labor on Tuesday detailing the abusive working conditions they experienced while building the facility.
Whistleblowers came forward to allege serious labor and employment violations during construction of the electric carmaker’s massive new plant in Austin, Texas, leaving them vulnerable to injury and wage theft.
Amid allegations of constant hazards and accidents at the site, one worker said his bosses at an unnamed subcontractor forged credentials instead of actually providing him and others with the necessary job training, which included education on health, safety and workers’ rights – including the right to refuse hazardous work.
Other whistleblowers report what they describe as wage theft, saying they were not paid at all for their work at the high-tech facility, or were not paid adequate overtime pay.
“Nobody deserves what happened at the Gigafactory to happen to them or their family members or whoever,” said Victor, a worker who asked the Guardian to withhold his last name for fear of retribution, in an exclusive interview via 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 broke ground in 2020, As a billionaire entrepreneur and owner of Tesla, SpaceX and now Twitter, Elon Musk built a key US outpost for his automaker. From outside the project, the new plant sounded like an ideal workplace for any contractor.
The company chose a convenient location on the Colorado River near Austin Airport, which Musk touted as a job opportunity for thousands, where he will manufacture the long-delayed Cybertruck electric pickup truck. Back in April, Musk wore sunglasses and a black cowboy hat to a “cyber rodeo” celebrating the venue’s grand opening.
But construction workers have painted a far less rosy portrait of the new factory, suggesting a dream job has turned into a nightmare.
On Tuesday, Victor files a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha), part of the Department of Labor, over alleged fake certificates of completion of required training, which he says never took place.
He told the Guardian so His team was ordered to work on the metal factory roof with no lights at night, work on smoking turbines without protective masks, and put themselves at risk without basic safety information.
In one instance, Victor said he and his colleagues were expected to maintain production on a flooded ground floor – despite observing power lines and cables submerged 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 the job with braces after breaking his arm on the spot.
“Every day there was a security problem,” he told the Guardian.
Other workers sacrificed time with loved ones to keep building the factory over Thanksgiving last year, but said they never received the promised double wage bonuses, according to Tuesday’s case referral to the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.
In an industry as fragmented as construction, with its vast network of contractors and subcontractors, labor rights activists claim 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 its power to make sure everyone could go home unharmed at the end of the day, with all the money that was owed them,” said Hannah Alexander, an 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 release identifying information about the contractors and subcontractors accused of labor violations for confidentiality reasons as part of a pending investigation.
This isn’t the first time Musk’s auto company has been linked to security breaches.
In recent years, Tesla’s Fremont, California plant has far outpaced other major U.S. auto factories for violating Osha guidelines, slapping fines of over $236,000 between 2014 and 2018. Likewise, workers at their factory outside of Reno, Nevada have sustained a number of injuries, including amputations.
By 2020, when the company was targeting Austin for another factory, allegations of lax treatment of workers’ rights were rife, and a broad coalition of labor groups, lawyers and county residents told local government that any deal had to be with Tesla implement strong worker protection measures.
But amid stiff competition from other cities also trying to win Tesla’s billion-euro investment, local officials gave the green light to a plan to win the electric-car maker with millions in tax refunds — and without the enforcement mechanisms proponents have warned are necessary.
Now some workers are dealing with the result.
“Everything we’re seeing is complicated by the fact that there’s not a lot of transparency or accountability because they chose not to include that independent monitoring element,” said David Chincanchan, policy director of the Workers Defense Project.
“In general, the state of the construction industry in Texas is more of a race to the bottom,” claimed Chincanchan, where exploitation of many vulnerable workers, often immigrants, is rampant.
Amid Tuesday’s filings, the Austin Gigafactory is now under fire.
“Everyone’s to blame,” Victor said. “Anyone could have prevented it. Tesla could have prevented that.”