On Tuesday, the Austin-based nonprofit Workers Defense Project announced it was filing complaints with the federal Department of Labor (DOL) alleging wage theft and falsified safety training during the construction of auto manufacturer Tesla’s so-called Gigafactory in Travis County. The 2,500-acre factory along the Colorado River opened in April following almost two years of construction. Tesla’s CEO is the centibillionaire Elon Musk, also of SpaceX and Twitter fame.
Together, the filings allege that an unspecified number of workers were not paid at all or were shorted on overtime pay during construction of the Tesla site and that a worker named Victor was provided with falsified Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certificates for training he did not actually receive. These workers were not employed directly by Tesla, but rather by an assortment of contractors and subcontractors. The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division and OSHA are empowered to investigate such claims, and the companies involved could face monetary or even criminal penalties. Workers Defense redacted the contractors’ names and the full names of workers to avoid retaliation or impeding federal investigation, a spokesperson said.
“We have dozens of workers who have come forward to Workers Defense with wage theft allegations … from a couple thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars,” staff attorney Hannah Alexander said Tuesday, “and workers report this wasn’t just happening to them but to others building the Tesla Gigafactory—potentially hundreds more.”
In an interview with the Guardian, Victor—the worker who allegedly received fake OSHA certificates—also said he was made to work on a metal roof at night without lights and to keep working in a flooded area. “Nobody deserves what happened in the Gigafactory to happen to them, or their family members, or whomever,” he told the British newspaper.
In an email Tuesday, DOL spokesperson Juan J. Rodriguez wrote: “The Wage and Hour Division takes allegations of workers’ rights abuses very seriously, and the division will investigate the alleged violations. The division works closely with groups like the Workers Defense Project to promote and ensure that employers comply with federal labor regulations that protect the nation’s workers.” Information pertaining to the OSHA complaint did not immediately appear in the agency’s online database.
Back in summer 2020, as Elon Musk was deciding to move Tesla headquarters to Texas seemingly in protest of California COVID-19 restrictions, the Travis County Commissioners Court approved a deal worth $14 million in property tax rebates for the Gigafactory. The deal included some labor-friendly terms, such as a $15 wage floor, but it didn’t include all the terms outlined in the so-called Better Builder Program—the signature initiative of Workers Defense that, for years, has raised the floor on wages and safety for construction projects receiving government incentives in Central Texas. In particular, the deal lacked independent on-site monitoring of safety and wage payment, according to Workers Defense Policy Director David Chincanchan.
“When Workers Defense first learned about Tesla coming to Travis County and seeking tax incentives … [we] opposed the project given the history of labor and employment abuses on Tesla sites across the nation,” Chincanchan said Tuesday. “While the final deal included some worker protections, it was not the level of protection that the community wanted.”
Outside Texas, Tesla has become well known for wide-ranging worker safety, record-keeping, and union-busting violations. In choosing Texas for its Gigafactory, Musk’s company—whose market value has dropped lately amid issues including Musk’s questionable Twitter takeover—chose the state already home to arguably the deadliest construction industry in the nation.
“Worker safety in Travis County is of the utmost importance to the Travis County Commissioners Court. This is why the Commissioners Court includes several worker protections in Economic Development Performance Agreements like the one with Tesla,” a county spokesperson told the Observer in an email. “The Travis County Commissioners Court is aware that a complaint … was filed. The Commissioners Court expects all parties to fully cooperate and will await the results of the investigation.”
The Observer has requested comment from Tesla and will update this story if a response is provided.
Although the employees described in Tuesday’s DOL complaints worked for contractors rather than for Tesla directly, Workers Defense argues that Tesla should be accountable too. “Even though the employers are technically contractors and subcontractors, what we do know in the construction industry is that Tesla is the developer and the power rests solely with Tesla and other developers who have the power to actually raise standards on a construction site,” said Juan Benitez, the group’s communications director.
Virginia Badillo, a Workers Defense board member, explained Tuesday the significance of wage theft for low-wage, often immigrant, construction workers. “For a company here in Texas, a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand dollars is nothing,” she said. “For our community, it’s the rent, food for your family … the difference between paying the light bill or not.”
As of early Tuesday afternoon, Musk had not tweeted about or otherwise publicly responded to the allegations.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with a comment on behalf of Travis County.
Disclosure: The writer’s spouse is employed by the Workers Defense Project. They were not involved in the production of this story.