In a society where entrepreneurs are deemed gods, there aren’t many gods as adored as Elon Musk. But behind the image of a messiah that is single-handedly fighting global warming is a dark shadow.
by Joseph Abela
The rapid expansion of Tesla from a company that delivered 321 vehicles in the first quarter of 2012 to a company that delivered nearly 30 000 vehicles in the first quarter of 2018, did not come from Elon Musk’s hard work, but through the blood and sweat of exploited workers. Until late 2016 Tesla workers had to work for long mandatory overtime hours. In 2017 Musk confirmed that mandatory overtime was still in effect but was being tapered. Musk’s statement was in response to an employee publicly stating that workers at Tesla’s Fremont plant were pushed to the point where they were risking their health. SpaceX employees also worked 12-hour days and describe that thus wasn’t a one-off occurrence, but rather a culture of excessive work. Musk himself says that he works up to 100 hours a week.
This culture of overworking is unhealthy, especially on a physical level. Working for more than 55 hours a week leads to a 13% greater risk of a heart attack and 33% greater risk of a stroke. There are also the social costs of working too hard. By spending most of their time at work, employees will not have any time for their families, and consequently no time for any form of leisure. While Elon Musk tries to make this unhealthy work ethic appear cool and innovative with his success, he is not telling the whole story. Tesla is one of those companies which sets unreasonable production targets – always trying to do more with the least amount of workers possible. Even with the extra hours, production targets are still often missed.
The culture of overworking coexists with an unsafe working environment. In 2015, workplace incidents at Tesla’s Fremont were 31% higher than the industry average. To put this number into context, slaughterhouses reported a lower incident rate in the same year. The sustained injuries were related to long hours and bad ergonomic designs of the machinery. Although by the end of 2016 Tesla declared it had improved safety significantly, to satisfy a number of their worker who were seeking to organize as part of a union to achieve better working condition, Tesla admitted to putting injured workers on less demanding jobs with a lower pay grade. This practice encouraged workers to return to their physically demanding jobs before being fully recovered, i.e. risk their health to get paid a just wage. Thus, Tesla actively penalized their employees for getting injured on the workplace.
Musk mocked his worker’s call for better conditions by promising them ‘free frozen yogurt stands’ and a ‘roller coaster’.
In his Medium post, Jose Moran urged his fellow workers to unionize to achieve a fair future at Tesla. Elon Musk’s reply was to claim that efforts to unionize were outrageous and that Moran was paid by UAW (United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America) and was a paid agitator. Elon Musk’s union-baiting is no major surprise. After all, the threat of workers unionizing forced Tesla to increase wages. Humane working conditions are viewed as a hindrance to increased profits by Musk and his ilk. In fact, in his response Musk accused UAW to have driven another Fremont automotive manufacturer to bankruptcy. However, if Tesla is driven to bankruptcy, the cause is more likely to be due to the unreasonable production targets. Musk mocked his worker’s call for better conditions by promising them ‘free frozen yogurt stands’ and a ‘roller coaster’. This imagery brings to mind the traditional Christmas image of elves slaving away at the North Pole to finish in time for Christmas so that the presents can be delivered on time, while somehow the elves get to enjoy themselves.
It is worth pointing out that, while workers’ rights are dispensable for Tesla, Elon Musk is offered huge compensation deals. Musk’s recent compensation plan is a huge payout proportional to performance targets. The reasoning behind the 55 billion dollar pay deal is to keep Elon Musk’s focus on Tesla and not be distracted by his other companies. It seems Elon Musk treats his companies like toys and is unable to focus on the task, unless promised a handsome reward. Thus, the board of directors vets a disproportional inequality of treatment: while workers are pushed to sacrifice their health for the company’s growth, Musk is only asked to stick around.
While climate change is indeed one of the most urgent challenges that mankind is facing, mitigating it cannot come at the cost of workers’ rights. It goes without saying that no one should be granted Laurels of Mankind’s Saviour – and Elon Musk is not an exception. His godly status should be debunked, as he is just another capitalist who took advantage of a new market niche. Musk’s Mars colonization plans stink of the idea that Earth is disposable (and beyond saving), and new turf will be made available (for those able to pay of course). For a true environmentalist, saving Earth from climate change should be a priority over space colonialisation. Anyone who considers workers struggle for their rights ‘outrageous’, does not strive to bring about a better world, even if they support development of renewable energy. Environmental justice cannot be achieved by technological means alone, without social justice. It requires building a fairer society and decent treatment of other human and non-human beings. Corporate CEOs like Elon Musk embody the opposite social concept – that of insatiable thirst for growth and profit which are responsible for the ecological decline in the first place.