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Tesla allegedly linked to migrant labor in building its facilities

According to the automaker's lengthy statement, a subcontractor was in charge of the labor, and Tesla will do what it can to make things right.

Tesla Model S

To its credit, Tesla was quick to release its statement on Monday, and it offered to do right by the injured worker.

Jim Dyson/Getty Images

When someone claims your company is using $5-an-hour migrant labor with questionable visas, you're going to want to put yourself in front of the issue and tackle it head on. That's what Tesla is doing today, after a weekend news feature claims Tesla's new paint shop was built on the backs of migrant labor.

The piece in the San Jose Mercury News looks at Gregor Lesnik, a Slovenian worker who came to the US under the alleged auspices of overseeing workers constructing Tesla's new high-volume paint facility.

The feature claims that Lesnik, who was eventually injured on the job, was paid roughly $5 an hour by a company called ISM Vuzem, after being brought to the US on a B1/B2 visa, which explicitly bars the sort of work that Lesnik allegedly performed while in the country. The feature then goes on to compare Lesnik's pittance to the $52 hourly figure that Americans in similar positions can make.

When brought to his attention via Twitter, Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed it was the first he'd heard of such allegations, and that he'd look into the matter. The following morning, Tesla issued a long statement, which I have embedded at the bottom of this article in its entirety.

Tesla's position is essentially, "We followed the law, but our contractor did not." Tesla hired Eisenmann to construct the paint shop, and Eisenmann relied on ISM Vuzem to supply workers for the job. If the story is to be believed, ISM Vuzem deserves to be in hot water with customs (with the improper visas), the law (by paying substandard wages), and Tesla itself (its agreement with Eisenmann promised that everything would be done by the books).

"Tesla will be working with Eisenmann and Vuzem to investigate this thoroughly," Tesla's statement reads. "If the claims are true, Tesla will take action to ensure that the right thing happens and all are treated fairly."

Tesla's full statement is below:

At Tesla, we aspire to operate on the principles of hard work and exceptional performance, but always tempered by fairness, justice and kindness. There are times when mistakes are made, but those are the standards to which we hold ourselves. With respect to the person at the center of this weekend's article in the Mercury News, those standards were not met. We are taking action to address this individual's situation and to put in place additional oversight to ensure that our workplace rules are followed even by sub-subcontractors to prevent such a thing from happening again.

Gregor Lesnik was brought to the Tesla factory by a company called ISM Vuzem, a sub-contractor brought in by Eisenmann, the firm that we hired to construct our new, high-volume paint shop. We contracted with Eisenmann for the simple reason that we do not know how to build paint shops and they are regarded as one of the best, if not the best, in the world. In our dealings with them, we have found them to be an excellent company, run by good people.

The article describes how Mr. Lesnik came to this country, the conditions under which Vuzem employed him and others to do their work, and how Mr. Lesnik ended up being injured while on the job. Assuming the article is correct, we need to do right by Mr. Lesnik and his colleagues from Vuzem. This is not a legal issue, it is a moral issue. As far as the law goes, Tesla did everything correctly. We hired a contractor to do a turnkey project at our factory and, as we always do in these situations, contractually obligated our contractor to comply with all laws in bringing in the resources they felt were needed to do the job.

Regarding the accident that resulted in Mr. Lesnik being injured, Cal/OSHA (the government regulator that investigates workplace accidents like these) came to our factory, investigated the incident and found that Tesla was not responsible. When Mr. Lesnik brought a workers compensation case, Tesla was dismissed from the case because the judge concluded that we had no legal responsibility for what occurred.

All of that is fine legally, but there is a larger point. Morally, we need to give Mr. Lesnik the benefit of the doubt and we need to take care of him. We will make sure this happens. We do not condone people coming to work at a Tesla facility, whether they work for us, one of our contractors or even a sub-subcontractor, under the circumstances described in the article. If Mr. Lesnik or his colleagues were really being paid $5 an hour, that is totally unacceptable. Tesla is one of the highest paying hourly employers in the US automotive industry. We do this out of choice, because we think it is right. Nobody is making us do so.

Tesla will be working with Eisenmann and Vuzem to investigate this thoroughly. If the claims are true, Tesla will take action to ensure that the right thing happens and all are treated fairly.

Creating a new car company is extremely difficult and fraught with risk, but we will never be a company that by our action does, or by our inaction allows, the wrong thing to happen just to save money.