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Lousy working conditions in the German Tesla plant in Grünheide

The German Tesla factory was considered a shining showcase project for the Berlin/Brandenburg region. But the mood seems to be changing - in the workforce, in the region and in politics.

At the main entrance of the Giga Factory in Grünheide, Brandenburg, a huge glass facade shimmers under the large Tesla logo. Glass that actually stands for light and transparency and perhaps even allows a glimpse into one of the most modern car factories in the world. But you can't see much through this glass. The factory buildings themselves are hidden behind security locks and thick concrete walls.

Now the Tesla factory is not much different from other car factories in this respect. But it is precisely here that the contrast between transparent architecture and impenetrable concrete creates an almost cynical symbolic power. On the one hand there is the dazzling, communicative and approachable boss Elon Musk. On the other hand, reports of lousy working conditions, fears of digital surveillance and strict non-disclosure clauses for employees are increasing. These are by no means all the issues that have caused Tesla and the Grünheide location to lose their shine lately. But first things first:

Ambitious goals, fast pace

When Tesla boss Musk surprisingly announced at the end of 2019 that he would build his only European giga factory in the Berlin area, the euphoria in this country could hardly have been greater. Politicians patted each other on the back, promised tens of thousands of jobs in the future, and took selfies with the multi-billionaire. In the months that followed, the factory was set up at an incomparable record speed – in the middle of the Corona crisis.

A little behind schedule, but at least in March 2022, Elon Musk was able to officially open the plant with a folk festival and the ceremonial handover of the first Model Y produced in Germany. Close by his side: Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck and the top politicians in Berlin and Brandenburg. The fairy tale seemed to come true. The almost 3,000 employees had already elected a works council. Shortly thereafter, production increased to 1,000 Tesla models per week.

IG Metall worries about working conditions

At the beginning of 2023, around 8,500 employees work at the Grünheide site. Since 2020 alone, 1,200 people have been placed by a special team made up of four job centers and four employment agencies, which has long since set up on the site. For a few weeks now, production has been running around the clock in three shifts for the first time. The next goal is being targeted: 5,000 cars a week. This will be achieved by the end of the first quarter of 2023. But it is not only now that insider reports about lousy, even chaotic working conditions are increasing.

IG Metall is often the first point of contact for dissatisfied employees.She also has an office very close to the plant. Typically, the largest single union in the world (2.3 million members) represents most automotive workers. "It was clear to us from the start that with this pace of expansion, not everything could go smoothly," emphasizes a union spokesman. "But the enthusiasm from the initial phase is waning very significantly. There is more and more disappointment among the workforce."

Long shifts, little rest time

You hear about chaotic shift planning with very short-term changes, long shifts with far too short rest times and not at all family-friendly consideration. Some employment contracts were even changed shortly before they were signed or drafted again afterwards. "Many workers have the impression that the ambitious goals are being passed on to them with great pressure," says the IG Metaller.

The goal - this means at least 500,000 electric cars by 2025, which, however, would require around 12,000 employees. But up to now not even basic technical standards should have been complied with. There is talk of bad air, too cold halls in winter and heat in summer. In September 2022, the plant fire brigade had to call for help from colleagues in the area because a fire could not be extinguished. Only a few of the many incidents would leak out at all.

Salaries not at industry level

Tesla had never promised to base its employment contracts on a collective agreement or that of IG Metall. The Americans, like the American online retailer Amazon before them, are deliberately ignoring the German employee culture of large companies. Tesla is alone among the German car manufacturers with this approach.

Even if, according to IG Metall, the salaries have now approached those of the collective agreements and were even increased by six percent last year, there are still no allowances. Holiday bonuses, Christmas bonuses, profit sharing or even salary developments are not taken into account in Tesla contracts. The bottom line is that the employees earn around 20 percent less on average than their colleagues at the VW plant in Wolfsburg, 250 kilometers away.

The district manager of IG Metall Berlin-Brandenburg-Saxony, Irene Schulz, made it clear at the annual press conference: "Tesla is not doing enough to improve working conditions and leaves too little room for leisure, family and relaxation." She pointed out that the non-disclosure clauses in Tesla employment contracts and the search for an internal investigator for the plant raise many questions among employees.

Tesla is looking for secret service investigators

Schulz is referring to a job advertisement that Tesla openly presents on its own website.We are looking for a German-speaking "Security Intelligence Investigator with several years of experience as an investigator with international/national law enforcement agencies or intelligence services and/or an equivalent time in the field of corporate security."

According to the tender, this also involves technical and forensic skills that are to be used inside and outside the factory premises to protect the company's interests. Employees and the media are apparently rightly concerned that Tesla is trying to track down informants among its own employees.

As a reminder: Elon Musk had already dissolved all press and public relations departments at the beginning of 2020 and revealed his rather questionable relationship with press freedom. Company inquiries about Tesla and especially the Grünheide location have remained unanswered since then. The car manufacturer recently received the negative "Closed Auster" award from the Network Recherche journalists' association.

Employees are leaving the company

Tesla fans, employees and the press primarily learn about the current state of affairs and the expansion of the plant via Elon Musk's Twitter channels. For example, half a year after the opening, a photo was posted showing employees standing next to a Tesla Model Y with a "2000" stuck on it. The production target of 2,000 cars per week was reached.

Although the not exactly glorious story of Elon Musk and the Twitter purchase is a completely different one, it is now clouding the image of Tesla as a company. While there aren't any official numbers, it seems like Musk's employees around the world are running away. At the end of 2022, an insane 7,500 jobs were advertised at Tesla – twice as many as in the summer. The Tesla careers page currently has more than 800 vacancies in Germany. Most of it is used in the Gigafactory Grünheide.

Economics Minister warns

More and more politicians are becoming aware of the high staff turnover and the grievances in the Brandenburg flagship project. State Economics Minister Jörg Steinbach (SPD) made it clear in the Handelsblatt that in view of the shortage of skilled workers only companies that offer attractive working conditions will win in the long term in the competition for personnel. Steinbach himself played a key role in the largest industrial settlement in the history of Brandenburg.

His comrade, the boss of the SPD workers' wing, Cansel Kiziltepe, became clearer. Tesla is the only car manufacturer in Germany without a collective agreement. "We can now see what this leads to: overload, insecurity and spying by the executive floor." The deputy chairman of the Greens parliamentary group, Andreas Audretsch, demanded clarification: "Elon Musk should transparently work up the alleged abuses and eliminate them where necessary."

In the same medium, the federal deputy of the CDU employee wing, Christian Bäumler, holds the authorities in Germany responsible. "The state government in Brandenburg is required to enforce occupational safety through close controls at Tesla without wrong consideration," said Bäumler. " The secrecy regulations at this car manufacturer are reminiscent of a sect".

Tesla gains control over groundwater

At the same time as the political upheaval, Tesla is being granted more and more special rights in the region. The Americans can now search for groundwater deposits in the region on their own to To secure the water supply of the plant for the next expansion stages. With the currently required 1.6 million cubic meters per year, the responsible water association Strausberg-Erkner (WSE) is already working to capacity. However, double the amount of water will soon be required. Tesla is already clearing around 70 hectares neighboring forest to create space for new production halls.

, Tesla could then be responsible for the additional water itself and literally dig the water out of the region. In the future, Tesla will also be able to monitor the quality of the groundwater under the plant itself. The actually responsible water association was excluded from the so-called groundwater monitoring by the Brandenburg State Office for the Environment - at the express request of Tesla. The factory can now check for itself whether groundwater is being contaminated by its own factory operations.

"The fact that the authorities secretly handed over all control to Tesla without informing us or the public is a real scandal," said André Bähler, head of the water supplier WSE to the "Stern".

The public prosecutor's office is investigating Tesla

In the past, of all things, Tesla hadn't taken it so seriously when it came to groundwater. During the said extinguishing work, for example, a large amount of extinguishing water seeped unhindered into the ground. Apparently only empty boxes were deleted. And in April 2022, 15,000 liters of chemicals spilled from a dip tank during an incident in the paint shop. Everything was neatly caught according to the factory specifications.

The Gigafactory is in the middle of a drinking water protection area. Parts of the Berlin/Brandenburg metropolitan region are supplied with fresh drinking water from here.

Since December, the public prosecutor's office in Potsdam has also been dealing with the fact that hazardous substances are stored unprotected on the factory premises. She is investigating against the electric car manufacturer on suspicion of the unauthorized operation of systems. The investigation follows a criminal complaint by the State Environment Agency and is related to the operation of a temporary hazardous materials store on the site.

Further information from the judiciary could not be given on request due to the ongoing proceedings.And even Tesla itself has not yet commented on this or other leaked abuses. Neither on Elon Musk's Twitter channel, nor among the workforce behind the large, transparent glass facade at the main entrance of the Tesla Giga Factory Grünheide.

Conclusion

Politicians and IG Metall are worried about the working conditions in the Tesla plant in Grünheide. Tesla itself cannot find and retain enough workers. Environmental groups criticize the US automaker's groundwater sovereignty in the region.

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