Name calling and swastikas: Tesla under fire for racism – once again | Business | Economic and financial news from a German point of view | DW



Owen Diaz can take a lot. As a black man in America, racial slurs are pretty much a part of everyday life. But Diaz says his experiences as an employee at Tesla surpassed everything.

In 2015 and 2016, the 53-year-old worked at a Tesla production plant in Fremont, California. There he operated elevators and watched as car parts and metal got on the correct assembly line. Instead of a pleasant and professional working atmosphere, however, he was regularly subjected to such unacceptable conditions that he eventually felt pressured to resign. Derogatory comments and hateful messages have become a part of his daily life in the production plant, Diaz said.

Now, almost five years later, Diaz faces his former employer in court. He is suing Tesla for racism and discrimination. The factories were a “hotbed of racist behavior,” according to the indictment, which will be heard in a California court on Wednesday. Black Tesla employees, he says, are subjected to constant and severe harassment.

The Nazis and the KKK

The Elon Musk-led automaker, for its part, denies the allegations. In Diaz’s case, Tesla said he was not aware of any possible fault. The company reiterated that it opposes any form of discrimination, harassment or unfair treatment and that every allegation is taken seriously and investigated. “We can never stop everyone in the factory from behaving inappropriately, but we will continue to do everything possible to encourage good behavior and take action whenever something bad happens.”

For Diaz, this is not enough. He wants compensation for the mental suffering he has endured. “You hear, ‘Hey, boy, come over here, N —–.’ or ‘Go back to Africa,’ “said Diaz The New York Times in 2018. “You ask yourself at one point: ‘Where is my line? “”

Graffiti and racist drawings were also reported around the factory. On washroom walls, for example, swastikas would be clearly visible, along with the initials “KKK” # “, the abbreviation for the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist hate group in the US The supervisor painted a once a figure supposed to represent a person from Africa: a cartoon with thick lips and a bone in their hair, with the word “Boooo” written underneath. That’s when Diaz decided that was enough.

Only temporary workers can lodge a complaint

Diaz is far from alone in accusing Tesla of fostering an unacceptable working environment in its factories. Between 2018 and March 2021 alone, 120 people tried to sue Tesla for discrimination. Nine of these prosecutions were overturned for lack of sufficient evidence. But all the other plaintiffs were granted leave to sue. A total of 104 affidavits include the 500-page application filed in March.

The number of unreported cases is probably much higher. The reason for this is so-called arbitration agreements, which Tesla employees must sign when they start work, agreeing not to take the company to court if there is a dispute. But some, including Diaz, were temporary workers, hired through employment agencies, and therefore did not have to sign such clauses. At most, everyone has the opportunity to settle disputes amicably through arbitration, which prevents class actions.

Above all: save money

Far from being an isolated case, such practices are prevalent in fast-growing companies, which often have little regard for the needs of their employees, experts say.

“Silicon Valley companies combine sophisticated technology with backward and often out of the 19th century labor relations systems,” says labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, who conducts research at the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In this way, companies like Tesla are trying to avoid the legal, moral and social responsibility of their workers, in part to save money. “But even more important is their ability to pull at will and / or impose high levels of operating production,” Lichtenstein said.

Business groups claim that arbitration is faster and more efficient for all parties involved. But workers’ representatives maintain that these procedures are not transparent and that they are often to the detriment of workers.

“My personal view is that Tesla is not focused on investigating and preventing these allegations,” Larry Organ, Diaz’s attorney, told the online magazine. Protocol. “They’re really focused on making cars, and less on driving their employees in the workplace, based on the discovery we’ve made in five different cases.”

Tesla’s aggressive tactics prove to be effective

Organ has represented former Tesla employees against the automaker in the past. In the vast majority of cases, the company has a strong initial reaction to the accusations, strongly denying them at first, but then opting for a full frontal attack.

In a 2017 blog post, Tesla said that Organ “has a long history of extorting money for baseless claims and using the threat of media attacks and costly trial fees to bring in companies to settle “.

“At Tesla, we would rather pay 10 times the legal claim and fight to the ends of the earth rather than give in to extortion and allow this abuse of the legal system.”

Tesla’s aggressive tactics have proven to be extremely effective so far. Out of nearly 90 labor arbitration requests filed between 2016 and early 2021, the company lost only one. It was a very similar case to Diaz’s. Almost two months ago, a US court ruled that Melvin Berry, a 47-year-old former employee, had been subjected to racial slurs by his superiors for years. Tesla must now pay a fine of $ 1 million. The majority of the money will go to court fees and legal fees, but $ 250,000 (€ 214,000) will go directly to Melvin Berry, of which $ 100,000 will be compensation for the emotional distress.

This article was translated from German.


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