Tesla’s economic and technological prowess has long overshadowed criticism of its whimsical boss Elon Musk and complaints from some employees. But accusations of “racial segregation” and sexual harassment on its Californian site cast opprobrium on the most valued car company on the stock market.
• Read also: California agency accuses Tesla of racial segregation in factory
“When I saw Tesla moving to the Bay (of San Francisco), I was very happy,” recalls Larry Organ, a civil rights attorney. “They’re responding to climate change, they’re recycling, their electric cars are highly rated… Everything seemed perfect. And then I started getting calls. »
He has received so many complaints from black employees who are victims of racism that a class action has been underway since 2017, against the Fremont factory, which produces the majority of the prestigious brand’s vehicles.
The procedure is constantly postponed. “I have litigated thousands of cases but Tesla is one of the worst adversaries in terms of stubbornness and bad faith,” said Mr. Organ.
On Wednesday, the state of California filed separate lawsuits against the factory for racial discrimination.
“After receiving hundreds of complaints from workers, we found evidence of racial segregation at the Fremont plant,” Kevin Kish, director of DFEH, the agency responsible for investigating civil matters, said Wednesday. .
In December, six women filed a complaint, accusing Tesla of having tolerated sexual harassment (rubbish and unsolicited physical contact).
The factory has also made headlines in recent years over failed attempts to organize and after a murder in the parking lot.
How did the situation deteriorate to the point where the accusation of “racial segregation” was pronounced?
Because these problems “do not affect the profits” of Tesla, answers Owen Diaz, a former employee of the group and victim of racism.
He evokes the contractual clause which obliges to resolve the conflicts internally, very widespread in the American companies.
“The company never takes responsibility,” he explains. The “referees”, paid by the group, “always take its side”.
A worker on the assembly line for nine months in 2015-2016, he says he suffered racist insults on a daily basis, including the “N-word” (the racist and extremely contemptuous term for black people). Without consequences for the authors of these degrading remarks.
In October, a jury ordered the automaker to pay him $137 million in damages for turning a blind eye.
“When we reported what was going on, we were told that we had a negative attitude,” says Mr. Diaz.
He also evokes the attitude of the boss, Elon Musk, the second richest man in the world according to Forbes.
In October, he tweeted that he would like to open a university called “Texas Institute of Technology & Science”, to the hilarity of his many fans, because the acronym, TITS, means “tits”.
It was at the same time when the stories about the sexism observed at the builder, but also at SpaceX, another company of the entrepreneur, arose.
Tesla’s culture is to “stage the transgression, the non-respect of the rules”, comments David Lowe, the lawyer of several women who filed the complaint.
“It contributes to an environment where people believe they can do whatever they want, … whether it hurts others or not. »
Tesla has experienced extraordinary growth, driven by the determination of Elon Musk, never reluctant to clash with stock market or government authorities.
He has long threatened California to leave because of health restrictions during the pandemic, which were delaying production. And in the fall, he moved the group’s headquarters to Texas.
Tesla, which did not react to a request from AFP, published a press release on Wednesday on the lawsuits brought by the American state, claiming to want to offer a “safe, respectful, fair and inclusive” workplace.
The group considers the complaint “unfair and counterproductive”, “at a time when industrial jobs are leaving California”.
The manufacturer delivered nearly a million cars in 2021 and made $5.5 billion in profits, despite global supply challenges.
“The workers regularly tell us about the quotas and the pressure to produce vehicles so quickly that many are injured,” said Steve Smith, communications director for a California federation of trade unions.
“But they are too afraid of losing their jobs to complain or speak out publicly.”
“I still believe in the vision” of Elon Musk, remarks Owen Diaz, now a bus driver. “We need to get rid of fossil fuels.”
“But I don’t like his methods. It’s like a stab in the back.”