During a keynote speech on May 10, Elon Musk commended Tesla factory workers in China for working under conditions that break labor laws in many parts of the world — including those in China, as The Guardian pointed out.
The high praise from Elon went out to workers who are being pushed to meet production goals in the middle of pandemic lockdowns, which have been ongoing at the Gigafactory in Shanghai since April. The Tesla CEO went on to compare Chinese workers with their American counterparts, who Musk says lack work ethic he considers impressive and vital for EV companies to succeed.
Here’s what Elon Musk told the Financial Times during his keynote speech:
I think the company making the most progress besides Tesla is actually VW which is not a start-up, but could be viewed in some ways as a start-up from an electric vehicle standpoint. So VW is doing the most on the electric vehicle front. I think there will be some very strong companies coming out of China. There’s just a lot of super talented and hardworking people in China that strongly believe in manufacturing. And they won’t just be burning the midnight oil. They’ll be burning the 3am oil. So they won’t even leave the factory type of thing. Whereas in America, people are trying to avoid going to work at all.
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Yup. Going by what Musk says, it sure sounds like what they say is true: nobody wants to work anymore. That is, except for workers in China, where conditions enabling Tesla to meet production goals during lockdowns have less to do with burning oil past midnight, and more to do with China’s extreme work culture. Meaning Musk isn’t really praising hardworking people so much as a disregard for labor rules.
The problem is that this disregard is not unusual in the country, even though China ostensibly doesn’t allow for such conditions. Chinese workers are officially not allowed to work more than 48 hours per week, including overtime.
During the lockdowns, workers at the Gigafactory reportedly worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week and slept on the floor. Again, that’s not only during recent lockdowns. This is actually common enough to be nicknamed “996.” That’s shorthand for work shifts going from 9am to 9pm, six days a week.
If you’re keeping count, that’s 72 hours per week. Musk has been known to brag about working 100-120 hour work weeks, and calling work meetings at 1am. So going by his own numbers, Chinese workers are not posting unreasonable work hours. And yet, the Gigafactory in Shanghai has seen numerous reports of labor rights and safety violations since 2018.
What changes — if any — these reports bring about are hard to enforce when China sees little wrong with grueling work conditions. And these narratives that billionaires like Musk tell about “hardworking people” don’t help.