Elon Musk’s Tesla opened a new factory in Austin this year with the promise of thousands of high-paying jobs and economic development. Just seven months into its opening, reports are emerging about the true nature of the construction of the factory, which seemingly includes rampant wage theft and completely falsified safety records.
The complaints filed by the Workers Defense Project, a local non-profit that works primarily with immigrant construction workers, further expose the pattern of severe exploitation and false promises that have made Musk infamous.
Workers claim Tesla falsified safety documents, stole wages
The crux of the WDP’s allegations is that workers at the Tesla factory have had wages stolen from them, sometimes not receiving “any pay for a week’s worth of work performed,” according to WDP attorney Hannah Alexander.
According to the complaints, many workers even worked shifts on holidays, having been promised extra pay, only to be paid nothing at all for their time away from their families.
The other major series of allegations deals with the safety practices of the factory. In the city of Austin, construction contracts follow the WDP’s Better Builder standards. This means that construction companies, at least in theory, are expected to teach a basic level of safety and provide a higher level of worker protection than companies in completely deregulated areas.
From the beginning, Tesla has fought any regulation of their business practices. They refused to adopt the Better Builder practices, and instead agreed only to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration training certifications for workers.
One worker, Victor, blew the whistle on the falsification of these documents. Victor claims he was provided with two separate fake OSHA certifications without receiving any safety training.
The certifications Victor should have received would have provided him and other workers in the program with information about health, safety and workers’ rights — including the right to refuse dangerous work. If these documents were in fact falsified, then Tesla and/or its subcontractors have been paying for fake documents to avoid giving their own workers vital information about their own labor and safety rights.
Tesla promises jobs while threatening local community for millions in tax incentives
Tesla came into the Austin area with grandiose promises, grotesque spectacle and thinly-veiled threats: a carrot-and-stick approach to ramming through their plans for exploitation free from any public oversight.
While the media reports that Tesla’s factory is in Austin, the story is actually more complicated. Tesla specifically targeted the Del Valle unincorporated area for its project. Del Valle is an area outside of Austin city limits, but within the same county. In practice, Del Valle and Austin are economically linked. But legally, Del Valle’s unincorporated status means that it does not have access to the same infrastructure support and economic base.
Tesla’s choice to put its factory in Del Valle is predatory to the core. By building the factory outside of city limits, they avoided having to deal with the nominally more “progressive” City of Austin, and instead dealt directly with county commissioners.
Tesla courted local support with the promise that the factory would create thousands of jobs. Some local community advocates believed that with these new jobs would come new infrastructure and opportunities for non-Tesla workers. The lack of infrastructure and economic opportunity is a real concern for Del Valle residents.
Behind the scenes, Tesla was plotting to drain Del Valle of badly needed public resources. They demanded huge tax incentives — $14 million in handouts from Travis County and $60 million from Del Valle Independent School District — in order to build the factory. If the county didn’t comply immediately, Tesla claimed they would build the factory in Tulsa, Oklahoma, instead.
This was the poisoned choice that Tesla presented to Del Valle residents: either give us your county’s and school’s scarce resources in the form of tax breaks, and maybe we will build out roads and houses for you later; or refuse us, and we will take our jobs elsewhere.
The controversial choice left the community bitterly divided, but in the end, Tesla won its bid to write off its taxes at Del Valle’s expense and build its factory to exploit local laborers. The South African apartheid heir opened his factory in April to great self-promoted fanfare: a “Cyber Rodeo” which saw Musk in a cowboy hat, driving a Tesla onto the stage to the tune of “Still D.R.E.” by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog. The event concluded with 10 minutes of non-stop fireworks.
Less than a year later, as Musk’s forays into social media have tarnished his brand, Tesla’s own brand is tarnished in kind. Tesla’s labor violations, fraud allegations, shady dealings, sexual harassment claims, safety issues, and whistleblower revelations are so extensive they have their own 18-section Wikipedia entry. Meanwhile, Del Valle’s infrastructure is in as bad shape as before, and Tesla’s $47,000 salaries aren’t enough to support housing and food needs for workers in the notoriously expensive Austin area.
Whatever the future holds for Tesla, its factory appears to be cut from the same cloth as Musk himself — woven through with broken promises and ruthless exploitation.
Feature photo: Heisenberg Media/Wikimedia Commons