U.S. and overseas businesses routinely utilize a federal visa program to skirt labor laws and undermine domestic workers, according to a newly released report.
The San Jose Mercury-News investigation published Sunday detailed the story of Gregor Lesnik, an unemployed Slovenian electrician who was injured while working on a Tesla Motors paint factory in Fremont, Calif.
Lesnik, who fell nearly three stories from the factory's roof last May, alleged in a subsequent lawsuit that he and dozens of other eastern Europeans were kept in the U.S. for months at a time, shuttled to the plant six or seven days per week and paid less than $5 per hour for their efforts.
The lawsuit, however, also helped expose how companies use the B1/B2 visa — a program for tourism or business purposes — to illegally employ low-wage foreign workers.
Lesnik signed up to work for ISM Vuzem, a Slovenia company and a subcontractor for German company Eisenmann. Tesla, in turn, contracted Eisenmann to expand the paint factory as it prepares for a dramatic increase in output of its electric vehicles.
Because the B1 visa applies to workers coming to the U.S. for supervisory roles, Lesnik's visa stated that he would help oversee an auto plant in South Carolina. Instead, he performed heavy manual labor at the Fremont factory 2,500 miles away.
The paper reported that Vuzem denied the claims in Lesnik's lawsuit and that Eisenmann and Tesla said that they were not responsible for his employment. Tesla, in a statement, said it requires its contractors to "hire and pay their workers appropriately.”
The problem, however, is not unique to Tesla, and a Labor Department official told the Mercury-News that "there is widespread abuse of the B1 visa in the Bay Area."
Critics added that the practice helped companies outbid rivals for contracts and effectively cost U.S. workers millions in wages. Sheet metal workers near the Tesla factory earn more than 10 times what Lesnik and his colleagues were allegedly paid.
"It killed us,” Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County President Rob Stoker told the paper. “We had so many people — ready, willing and able — needing this.”