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18 May 2017

Tesla Factory Workers Reveal Pain, Injury and Stress: 'Everything Feels Like the Future But Us'

Inside Tesla's car-production center in Fremont, California.  The
factory employs some 10,000 workers.  Photo:  Tesla
"Ambulances have been called more than 100 times since 2014 for workers experiencing fainting spells, dizziness, seizures, abnormal breathing and chest pains, according to incident reports obtained by the Guardian. Hundreds more were called for injuries and other medical issues."

Tesla factory workers reveal pain, injury and stress: 'Everything feels like the future but us'
by Julia Carrie Wong in Fremont, California, The Guardian, 18 May 2017

Exclusive: CEO Elon Musk defends workplace, saying ‘[we are not] just greedy capitalists who skimp on safety’ – and declares his $50bn company overvalued

When Tesla bought a decommissioned car factory in Fremont, California, Elon Musk transformed the old-fashioned, unionized plant into a much-vaunted “factory of the future”, where giant robots named after X-Men shape and fold sheets of metal inside a gleaming white mecca of advanced manufacturing.

The appetite for Musk’s electric cars, and his promise to disrupt the carbon-reliant automobile industry, has helped Tesla’s value exceed that of both Ford and, briefly, General Motors (GM). But some of the human workers who share the factory with their robotic counterparts complain of grueling work pressure they attribute to Musk’s aggressive production goals, and sometimes life-changing injuries.

Ambulances have been called more than 100 times since 2014 for workers experiencing fainting spells, dizziness, seizures, abnormal breathing and chest pains, according to incident reports obtained by the Guardian. Hundreds more were called for injuries and other medical issues.

In a phone interview about the conditions at the factory, which employs some 10,000 workers, the Tesla CEO conceded his workers had been “having a hard time, working long hours, and on hard jobs”, but said he cared deeply about their health and wellbeing. His company says its factory safety record has significantly improved over the last year.

Musk also said that Tesla should not be compared to major US carmakers and that its market capitalization, now more than $50bn, is unwarranted. “I do believe this market cap is higher than we have any right to deserve,” he said, pointing out his company produces just 1% of GM’s total output.

“We’re a money losing company,” Musk added. “This is not some situation where, for example, we are just greedy capitalists who decided to skimp on safety in order to have more profits and dividends and that kind of thing. It’s just a question of how much money we lose. And how do we survive? How do we not die and have everyone lose their jobs?”

Musk’s account of the company’s approach differs from that of the 15 current and former factory workers who told the Guardian of a culture which they described as requiring working long hours under intense pressure, sometimes through pain and injury, in order to fulfill the CEO’s ambitious production goals.

“I’ve seen people pass out, hit the floor like a pancake and smash their face open,” said Jonathan Galescu, a production technician at Tesla. “They just send us to work around him while he’s still laying on the floor.”

He was one of several workers who said they had seen co-workers collapse or be taken away in ambulances. “We had an associate on my line, he just kept working, kept working, kept working, next thing you know – he just fell on the ground,” said Mikey Catura, a worker on the battery pack line.

Richard Ortiz, another production worker, spoke admiringly of the high-tech shop floor. “It’s like you died and went to auto-worker heaven.” But he added: “Everything feels like the future but us.”

Tesla sits at the juncture between a tech startup, untethered from the rules of the old economy, and a manufacturer that needs to produce physical goods. Nowhere is that contradiction more apparent than at the Tesla factory, where Musk’s bombastic projection that his company will make 500,000 cars in 2018 (a 495% increase from 2016) relies as much on the sweat and muscle of thousands of human workers as it does on futuristic robots.

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