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Lawsuit Claims Tesla Owes Cheap, Imported Temp Workers $2.6M; Faulty Visas Used to Lure Them

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An amazing piece of long-form investigative journalism from the San Jose Mercury News shines light on the hidden, foreign workforce being brought to the U.S. on faulty B1/B2 visas in order to build auto factories.  At the heart of the story is a new multi-million dollar paint shop at Tesla’s Fremont, California factory. An injury at the shop, and the resulting lawsuit, exposed an industry trade secret: auto factories are being built by contractors using cheap and exploitable Eastern European labor.

Finished in 2015, the shop is an important piece of Tesla’s plan to ramp up production as it readies the release of its Model 3 sedan. The man at the center of the lawsuit is 42-year-old Gregor Lesnik who, according to the lawsuit, climbed atop the paint shop roof and onto an unsecured tile and fell nearly three stories to the factory floor. He broke both legs, some ribs, tore ligaments in his knee, and sustained a concussion.

Some of the Mercury News findings are outlined in a new video piece:

Lesnik’s lawsuit claims that the workers were paid as little as $5 an hour and were forced to work 10-hour days, 6 to 7 days a week, with no overtime.  Lesnik and many like him were hired by a temp agency, so neither Tesla nor any of its contractors are claiming legal responsibility for employing him and his coworkers.

Approximately 140 Eastern European workers helped build the Tesla paint shop in Fremont and most came from impoverished sections of Croatia and Slovenia.  Lesnik answered an ad by a small Slovenian company called ISM Vuzem. An out-of-work electrician, Lesnik sought any job he could find as he and his girlfriend had a baby on the way.  Because of the awful wages in Slovenia, many of the workers interviewed by the Mercury News stated that they were happy to have their job despite the wage theft and dangerous conditions. This is the exact type of exploitation that drives American wage standards down, the primary reason many labor groups oppose expansion of temp worker visas.

According to the report, ISM Vuzem provides teams of Eastern European workers to build manufacturing plants in Europe and the U.S. It counts Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Volkswagen, Ford, and Saab as clients. For its part, ISM Vuzem is the low-man on the totem pole in a complicated business agreement involving several contractors.  The Tesla project was overseen by Eisenmann, a German-based manufacturer of industrial systems. In court, Eisenmann too claimed it did not employ Lesnik.  

The Mercury News, however, revealed that Eisenmann helped get Lesnik into the country and likely lied about his qualifications and purpose for being here in order to do so:  

Vuzem helped Lesnik secure a B1/B2 visa that allowed limited business and tourism in the U.S., but not the kind of hands-on work he said he performed at the Tesla paint factory.
Eisenmann also helped with the paperwork. Court filings show Lesnik’s visa application included a letter to the U.S. consulate from Robert Keller, Eisenmann’s Chicago area-based U.S. purchasing manager who was also listed as Lesnik’s U.S. 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.”

“His assignment will involve multiple border entries,” Keller wrote, “but in no way adversely affect the employment of citizens of the United States.”

This is patently untrue. American workers could have done this work — safely — and been paid solid wages. Rob Stoker, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County, told the Mercury News, “there’s definitely something wrong with this picture.”  His group also bid on the Fremont project but lost the contract because of labor costs.

“It killed us,” Stoker said. “We had so many people — ready, willing and able — needing this.”

The lawsuit estimates that the temp workers are due $2.6 million in overtime and premium pay.


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