SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – A former worker who helped build the Tesla electric vehicle plant in the San Francisco Bay Area says he unwittingly participated in far-reaching immigration fraud aimed at importing workers into the United States who would work for lower wages, according to a recently unsealed federal lawsuit.
In an amended federal whistleblower action filed in July 2016 and unsealed recently, Gregor Lesnik of Slovenia claims Eisenmann, a Germany-based auto parts manufacturing company, participated in a conspiracy along with Tesla, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and others to defraud the United States of tax dollars using the B-1 visas.
“Defendants and each of them made and used or knowingly ratified and assisted this making and using, false records and statements to avoid obligations to pay the United States,” Lesnik said in the 27-page qui tam action.
B-1 visas are not work visas, instead issued to non-U.S. citizens for business purposes such as consulting with associates, traveling to work conventions, negotiating contracts, participating in short-term contracts and other commercial activities of a temporary nature.
However, Lesnik and a host of other similarly situated workers, many also from Slovenia, were used to construct auto manufacturing plants such as the Tesla plant in Fremont, California, a Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and a BMW plant in Greenville, South Carolina.
At the Tesla plant alone, more than 150 workers on suspect visas were used to build the plant and paid as little as $5 an hour, circumventing labor laws and tax requirements, Lesnik says in the complaint.
He says that though Eisenmann and a company called Vuzem were the primary provider of the workforce and functioned as the point organization for the scheme that the rest of the named defendants, including some of the largest carmakers in the world, were knowing participants in.
“Defendants in furtherance of this scheme also wrote and revised contracts with each other, with their clients, in order to conceal the fact that the defendants were providing B-1 visa holders to perform either skilled or unskilled labor that were otherwise required to be performed by United States citizens or require legitimate H-1B visas,” Lesnik says in the lawsuit.
Vuzem is a subcontractor that provided workers to Eisenmann, which in turn provided workers to the automakers. Labor leaders at the time the contract was awarded said Vuzem was able to secure the contract solely because it relied on cheap foreign labor and visa abuse.
The scheme also means the companies involved avoided significant sums in Social Security, Medicaid and other taxes, Lesnik says.
The scheme apparently came to light after Lesnik was injured while working on the Tesla plant. He fell through a panel in the roof, breaking bones. He eventually settled his claims with the company for $550,000 in 2015.
The U.S. Department of Labor apparently flirted with filing a case against Tesla and some of the other manufacturers but has yet done so.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk said at the time Lesnik’s settlement came about that he was paid appropriate wages – about $55 per hour. The company also said in an extensive blog post about Lesnik and the other contractors used by Eisenmann that they believed the contractor was adhering to the law.
“We do not condone people coming to work at a Tesla facility, whether they work for us, one of our contractors or even a sub-subcontractor,” the company wrote. “If Mr. Lesnik or his colleagues were really being paid $5 an hour, that is totally unacceptable.”
Tesla told Courthouse News it has yet to be served with Lesnik’s lawsuit and noted it no longer works with Vuzem or any company associated with its owners.
Eisenmann did not return requests for comment as of press time.
Lesnik is represented by San Jose attorney William Dresser.