Has Tesla been violating labor laws in California?

May 17, 2016

Over the weekend, news broke about an accident at the Tesla Factory in Fremont, California. The accident itself wasn't especially noteworthy--it happened a year ago, in May 2015, and thankfully, the man made a full recovery. Ordinarily, it wouldn't have merited much attention.

Except it did. 

The injured worker was one Gregor Lesnik, a Slovenian national who came to America on a temporary business visa, commonly known as the B1. If you're not familiar with the B1, it's the visa that tech companies often use to bring in workers from foreign countries. It's classed as a "non-immigrant visa", meaning that holders don't intend to apply for U.S. citizenship.

To have a B1 visa issued to a potential employee, a U.S. company must show that the worker in question has special skills that are difficult to find in the American workforce. In official documents, Lesnik was listed as a "supervisor of electrical and mechanical installation".

While that might not sound like much in the way of special skills, it's far grander than the reality of the situation: when the B1 application was filed, Lesnik was an unemployed electrician with no unusual qualifications, no real management experience, and very limited English.

Long story short, the B1 went through, Lesnik came to America and went to the Tesla Factory. There, he worked up to six days a week, ten hours per day, and was paid $5 per hour (with no overtime) to install ductwork--the kind of manual labor that's forbidden under the terms of a B1 visa.

On May 16, 2015, after three months on the job, Lesnik fell through the roof of Tesla's paint shop, bounced off some scaffolding, and hit the floor. He broke both legs, several ribs, and suffered a concussion.

Though encouraged to return home to Slovenia, Lesnik has stayed and sued for damages and penalties. Three of the major players in the lawsuit are Tesla itself, its German subcontractor, Eisenmann, and Eisenmann's Slovenian subcontractor, Vuzem, who hired Lesnik in the first place.

  • Tesla has denied any wrongdoing, insisting that Lesnik isn't technically an employee because he works for a subcontractor. The company also claims that Lesnik wasn't wearing the proper safety equipment at the time of the accident.
  • Eisenmann--a company that's no stranger to issues like these, having been accused of similarly shady business practices at a Mercedes-Benz facility in Alabama--also denies that Lesnik was its employee. 
  • Vuzem hasn't denied that Lesnik was on its payroll, though the company has disputed his version of events surrounding the accident.

It may take months, if not years, for this case to work its way through the courts, and it's entirely possible that it'll be settled long before it reaches a judge. But no matter what happens in the end, the case has furthered awareness about the unfair treatment of immigrant labor in the U.S. The initial report is well worth a read.

Whether you're in favor of mile-high border barriers or would prefer a nation without walls at all, we should be able to agree that if a U.S. firm hires someone, they ought to treat that person fairly--even if that person is technically paid by a dodgy foreign subcontractor to help expand capacity at a plant that makes outrageously popular new cars.

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