Elon Musk's Name Is Mud in the Foreign Worker Field

By David North on May 23, 2016

Silicon Valley's highly regarded innovator Elon Musk — he of Tesla fame — turns out to be just another exploitative user of what I regard as illegal alien workers, according to a detailed expose by the San Jose Mercury News.

In this case, the workers are from Eastern Europe and they have been allowed by our lackadaisical State Department to use B-1 (business) visas to enter the United States to do manual labor building Tesla's factory to make electric cars. Such visas may be used for commercial activities such as signing agreements and training people in the use of foreign-produced machinery, but not for day-to-day construction work.

This is not an isolated incident; we have previously reported on the similar misuse of B-1 workers by Infosys and Boeing.

Tesla uses the familiar the-dog-ate-my-homework excuse — it was a contractor, not Tesla itself, that hired the workers. That's exactly the rhetoric used for generations by agri-business; the man in the big mansion on the hill overlooking the fields explains that he did not exploit those ill-paid migrant workers, it was that nasty crew leader.

If Tesla is smart enough to build electric cars, is it not smart enough to know what's going on within its own factory? Apparently not.

Reporter Louis Hansen spins a long tale about Gregor Lesnik, a Slovenian electrician who was recruited by Tesla's agents overseas, ISM Vuzem, a small Slovenian company. Vuzem essentially played the crew leader in this story, recruiting some 140 workers from the sagging economies of Slovenia and adjacent Croatia, both formerly parts of Yugoslavia, for construction jobs in the United States.

Lesnik and his compatriots worked 10-hour days and 60-hour weeks for about $5 an hour, a fraction of the pay for legal workers in Silicon Valley. There was no overtime pay and barely time for a day off, much less a vacation. They did manual construction work on the expanding factory.

The visa that got Lesnik in the country was issued so that he could come to a BMW factory in South Carolina to be a supervisor of "electrical and mechanical installation". He never saw South Carolina, never supervised anyone, and would have difficulty doing so with U.S. workers as his English is extremely limited. He had to return to Slovenia every few months to renew his visa, and the U.S. embassy apparently never asked the right questions or never asked any questions at all.

Hansen's report, though it is not explicit on this point, reveals a labor market where there are apparently no effective controls of obvious abuses, and this in the state of California just south of San Francisco, the nation's most left-leaning city. Here are some of the things that did not happen, over and above the ridiculous visa issuances and re-issuances:

  • Neither federal nor state wage-hour agencies knew anything about the matter until Hansen told the federal agency about it (Congress has a hand here, preventing the Wage and Hour Administration from having more than 1,000 enforcement officials nationwide, a disgracefully low number);

  • No union noticed and raised hell with the federal authorities;

  • No poverty agency or other liberal activists noticed or lifted a finger; and

  • Of course, the Department of Homeland Security did nothing.

The workers, being paid better than in Europe, did not raise their voices, and so in this cacophony of silence Tesla and its crew leader (Vuzem) prospered.

DHS agents should raid the place tomorrow, send the workers home on the next plane, and work with the Labor Department to see to it that the departed workers get large, retroactive paychecks. And then revisit the place in a few weeks to make sure that another bunch of B-1 workers have not arrived. All of this can be done under current laws and, sadly, none of it is likely to happen.

The story came to light after Lesnik fell from the roof of the factory while hauling heavy pipes; he broke both legs and some ribs and was hospitalized in California, and then shipped home by his employer. The Mercury News strangely does not touch on the question of workers' compensation, which should have (and may have) paid his medical bills and should have given him the approximation of unemployment insurance benefits while he was too injured to work, and other benefits should he prove to be partially and permanently disabled by his injury.

I have asked the reporter about this aspect of the case.

Hansen reports that neither Tesla nor Vuzem will admit that there was anything wrong with the situation. Let's hope that some California lawyer gloms onto the case and sues the pants off both corporations.