hen Gregor Lesnik left his pregnant girlfriend in Slovenia for a job in America, his visa application described specialized skills and said he was a supervisor headed to a South Carolina auto plant.
Turns out, that wasn’t true.
The unemployed electrician had no qualifications to oversee American workers and spoke only a sentence or two of English. He never set foot in South Carolina. The companies that arranged his questionable visa instead sent Lesnik to a menial job in Silicon Valley. He earned the equivalent of $5 an hour to expand the plant for one of the world’s most sophisticated companies, Tesla Motors.
Lesnik’s three-month tenure ended a year ago in a serious injury and a lawsuit that has exposed a troubling practice in the auto industry. Overseas contractors are shipping workers from impoverished countries to American factories, where they work long hours for low wages, in apparent violation of visa and labor laws.
About 140 workers from Eastern Europe, mostly from Croatia and Slovenia, built a new paint shop at Tesla’s Fremont plant, a project vital to the flagship Silicon Valley automaker’s plans to ramp up production of its highly anticipated Model 3 sedan. Their story emerged from dozens of interviews conducted by the Bay Area News Group, and an extensive review of payroll, visa and court documents.
DOUG DURAN/BAY AREA NEWS GROUP
Gregor Lesnik, an electrician from Slovenia, was among scores of Eastern European workers who worked on a multimillion dollar expansion of Tesla’s Fremont factory in 2015. At the plant, Lesnik lifted heavy pipes, and installed them into the ceiling and through the roof of the paint shop. A typical workday was 10 hours at least six days a week.
COURTESY OF DANIJEL TRAVANCIC
On May 16, 2015, he climbed atop the paint shop roof and onto an unsecured tile, then fell nearly three stories to the factory floor. He broke both legs, some ribs, tore ligaments in his knee and sustained a concussion. Lesnik filed a lawsuit saying workers were paid as little as $5 an hour.
Yet neither the contractors involved nor Tesla itself have accepted legal responsibility for the hiring practices, long hours and low pay. While most of the imported workers interviewed for this story said they are happy with their paychecks, their American counterparts earn as much as $52 an hour for similar work.
“There’s definitely something wrong with this picture,” said Rob Stoker, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County, who believes local sheet metal workers lost tens of thousands of work hours and millions of dollars in wages.
Critics say the U.S. government hasn’t done enough to halt such arrangements, and has become an unwitting partner by allowing the workers to enter the country on a nonimmigrant visa for tourism and business, known as a B1/B2. Replacing U.S. workers with foreign visa holders for construction work is an improper use of the business visa, they say.
Recruited by a small Slovenian company called ISM Vuzem, Lesnik, 42, and his co-workers were flown into the U.S. for months at a time, housed in nondescript apartments, and shuttled to the Tesla plant six and sometimes seven days a week, according to workers and the suit.
While foreign workers can obtain B1 visas for supervisory duties, the workers at the Tesla plant were simply installing pipes and welding parts — hands-on work banned by the terms of their visas, according to immigration experts and court documents. Workers interviewed by this news organization said they have worked on jobs under similar arrangements around the country.
Federal authorities are struggling to keep up. “We have concluded that there is widespread abuse of the B1 visa in the Bay Area,” said Michael Eastwood, assistant district director of the San Jose area office of the U.S. Department of Labor. He was unfamiliar with the allegations against Tesla contractors.
The labor practices contrast with Tesla’s image as the planet’s most innovative automaker, using technological ingenuity to manufacture cars in the heart of Silicon Valley. Tesla said it employs nearly 6,000 U.S. workers in the once-shuttered Fremont factory, all well-paying jobs that come with company equity. While bypassing American workers for low-cost foreign laborers may benefit automakers’ bottom line, Tesla said it had nothing to do with hiring the ones who built its paint shop.
It never employed Lesnik, did not control his work, and was not responsible for his pay or immigration status, the company said. “Tesla expects all its contractors and their subs ... to comply with all applicable pay laws.”
The company overseeing Tesla’s expansion project — Eisenmann, a German-based manufacturer of industrial systems — also denied in court that it had legal responsibility for Lesnik. Vuzem acknowledged that it hired Lesnik but denies his claims.
Tesla and Eisenmann won a preliminary effort to be removed from the lawsuit, but an Alameda County Superior Court judge has allowed Lesnik’s amended complaint against them to move forward.
Amid all this legal maneuvering, a question looms: How did so many workers on the other side of the world end up traveling 6,000 miles with suspect visa papers to the same job site in Fremont, California?