Protocol | Workplace

Racist graffiti, 'plantation' jokes and 100 potential lawsuits: Ex-workers say Tesla is still racist

The N-word, demeaning jokes and retaliation on the basis of race are all common at Tesla, according to 100-plus sworn statements from a class-action lawsuit and public records obtained by Protocol.

Tesla workers on the line in Fremont, California

Just under 120 people have requested the right to sue Tesla since 2018 for discriminatory reasons, according to public records obtained by Protocol.

Photo: David Butow/Getty Images

When Aaron Craven clocked in to work every day at the Tesla Fremont factory, he knew he might hear or be called the N-word. When he walked into the bathroom stalls, he knew he might see graffiti of "KKK" or a swastika.

"I was directly called n----- and n---- approximately 100 times at the Fremont factory," Craven said in a sworn statement. "I heard the terms n----- and n---- used over 100 times by co-workers, and by my lead Auggie, in the Tesla factory."

Former Tesla workers also called ex-contractor Aaron Minor "n-----," and Minor, too, found swastikas in the bathroom. Minor heard the factory called "the Plantation" and its Black employees "cotton workers." "My understanding is that people refer to the Tesla factory as the Plantation and call employees cotton workers because Tesla treats its Black employees like slaves," he wrote in a sworn statement.

These sworn statements and 103 other declarations sworn under penalty of perjury comprise a 500-page exhibit filed in March 2021 as part of a 2017 lawsuit that alleges Tesla discriminates against Black people and has allowed a racially hostile work environment to fester in its factories. The lawsuit's allegations against the company are not unique: While Tesla has for years denied that it tolerates and enables racist and discriminatory behavior, Protocol found that since 2018, just under 120 people have requested the right to sue Tesla in California for discriminatory reasons related to race, national ancestry, skin color, gender, age, disability or other factors related to family and medical leave. Nine of those claims were denied the right to sue for insufficient evidence.

Craven, Minor, Adrianna Leaks, Akylah Davis, Amamonye Robbins, Ambriz Ladson, Andrexia Robbins, Angela Allen, Anthony Williams and Antonio High submitted the first 10 declarations/affidavits in the March 2021 packet. All accuse Tesla and its managers and employees of racism and discrimination at the Fremont factory (which Tesla says employs more than 10,000 people). In addition to slurs and allusions to slavery, many of the statements allege struggles for job promotion, workers forced to perform menial tasks below their pay grade or different from their colleagues, and an employer disinterested in investigating allegations.

Tesla has been battling the lawsuit, called Marcus Vaughn v. Tesla, in Alameda County Superior Court since 2017, when ex-Tesla contractor Vaughn first alleged his own experiences of racism at Tesla's Fremont factory. Vaughn is represented by Larry Organ and Bryan Schwartz, attorneys for the California Civil Rights Law Group. The firm has filed several individual cases on behalf of other Tesla workers in addition to Vaughn's class action, all alleging similar experiences of racial discrimination. So far, the group has lost one case and won the other in arbitration, while a third (Owen Diaz v. Tesla) is set to go to trial later this year.


The 105 sworn statements from Minor, Craven and other ex-Tesla workers were filed in March 2021 as part of an effort to win class-action status in the Vaughn case. A class-action lawsuit permits one person (in this case, Vaughn) to represent a larger group of people who are similarly situated (in this case, other employees who allegedly experienced similar racism and discrimination) and seek damages on their behalf. But the case first needs to be certified by the court as a class action.

Additionally, for workers to sue for employment discrimination in California, they first must obtain the "right to sue" from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which Organ helped some workers do in 2017 to get the Tesla lawsuits off the ground. Organ's class action and the hundreds of complaints with the California DFEH are relatively unique because Tesla has made it exceptionally difficult for anyone who works for the company to sue in instances of discrimination. "Many of these issues are subject to arbitration because Tesla requires people who sign their contracts as regular Tesla employees to sign an arbitration agreement as part of that contract," Organ said.

The Vaughn class action might be able to succeed in court because Tesla contract employees have not been required to sign arbitration clauses in the past, Organ explained. "It also appears there are some people who have not signed arbitration agreements but do work as regular employees at Tesla because they can't find the arbitration agreements," he said.

And since 2018, without Organ and Schwartz's help and separately from their lawsuits, other former Tesla contractors and employees have continued to ask the California DFEH for the right to sue the company for race, sex or age-based discrimination at Tesla locations in California.

Despite Tesla attorneys' insistence in court that Vaughn's alleged experiences don't represent a collective group experience, the public records obtained by Protocol show that more than 100 workers have been granted the right to sue the company since 2018. (Though these complaints were filed separately from the class action, many of the Fremont workers could be eligible to join the Vaughn lawsuit, according to Organ.) More than 30 of those 100 "right to sue" letters involved accusations of discrimination on the basis of race, skin color, ancestry or national origin at the Fremont and Palo Alto locations specifically. Race-based complaints about Tesla are on average more common than the proportion of race-based complaints state-wide; while about 10% of all cases requesting right to sue were filed on the basis of race with the DFEH in 2020 (and less than that in previous years), more than 30% of the Tesla cases from 2018 to 2021 are based on allegations of racial discrimination.

"My personal view is that Tesla does not focus on investigating and preventing these claims. They are really focused on making cars, and less focused about their employees' conduct in the workplace, based on the discovery that we've done in five different cases," Organ said.

"It all depends on the facts of the case. However, what our class action has revealed and what the culmination of these cases shows, use of the N-word and other racist symbols like a swastika has been consistently used at the factory in Fremont since 2015," he claimed.

The "right to sue" data reviewed by Protocol include people who allege they were denied promotions and work opportunities or were suspended or forced out because of their gender, age or race. Often, the complainant simply states: "Denied a work environment free of discrimination and/or retaliation." The majority of the right to sue letters with race-based complaints were issued in 2018, though seven more were issued in 2019, and eight in 2020.

If you have a story you'd like to share about your own experience at Tesla, reach out to akramer@protocol.com.

Tesla has vociferously argued against certifying Vaughn v. Tesla as a class action, alleging that Vaughn's experiences at the California factory were unique and that the company dealt with the people involved in creating the racially-hostile environment Vaughn described in the suit. "After a thorough investigation, immediate action was taken, which included terminating the employment of three of the individuals," the company wrote in a 2017 press release. Tesla did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

After Organ started pursuing cases for the former workers who are actually free to sue, "Tesla started sending NDAs with arbitration agreements to their contractors, to people who were working at Tesla through staffing agencies. They want to try and push everybody out to arbitration," he said.

The Vaughn case recently won a partial victory against Tesla, securing validation from Alameda Judge Winifred Smith in April 2021 that at least three potential "classes" exist that could allow the case to be certified as a class action. The contract workers, contract workers who became employees and full-time employees who did not sign arbitration agreements could all be eligible, according to Organ.

"Tesla is very reluctant to give us information about what has happened in the workplace. We're in the discovery stage, but Tesla moved to decertify our class allegations prematurely. The judge rejected that," Organ said.

The workers listed in the DFEH records obtained by Protocol might also be eligible to join the Vaughn class action, according to Organ. A court might allow people who filed race-based discrimination complaints in the Fremont factory specifically and meet any of the three potential "class" descriptions to join the class.

"We have evidence from the Diaz case, dating back to 2015, that there was racist conduct on the Tesla factory floor. And we have evidence from the Vaughn case that that racist conduct is continuing today. If you said the N-word back in 2015, and you said the N-word recently, within the last couple of months…" Organ stopped talking. "In general, race claims are up from before Trump. He, I think, empowered many racist people to express their racist proclivities. And so we know there's a steep increase in the number of intakes and cases that we took that are race-based, and the severity of them was worse."

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Protocol | Workplace

How to make remote work work

Hofy made an early bet that COVID-19 would have a long-term impact on workplaces. The company recently raised $15.2 million for its remote workforce equipment management solution.

Hofy recently raised $15.2 million for its remote workforce equipment management service.

Photo: Jannis Brandt/Unsplash

It's your new employee's first day of remote work, but their laptop hasn't shown up yet. Not a good look.

This very 2021 persistent problem is part of why Hofy, a remote workplace management tool, recently raised $15.2 million to help companies deploy laptops, chairs, desks and other physical equipment to their remote employees. The idea for Hofy, which is launching out of stealth today, emerged in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — before lockdowns went into effect in the U.S. and the U.K. Hofy's co-founders, Sami Bouremoum and Michael Ginzo, had a feeling that COVID-19 would have a long-term effect on society.

Keep Reading Show less
Megan Rose Dickey

Megan Rose Dickey is a senior reporter at Protocol covering labor and diversity in tech. Prior to joining Protocol, she was a senior reporter at TechCrunch and a reporter at Business Insider.

Protocol | Policy

Tech giants want to hire Afghan refugees. The system’s in the way.

Amazon, Facebook and Uber have all committed to hiring and training Afghan evacuees. But executing on that promise is another story.

"They're authorized to work, but their authorization has an expiration date."

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Late last month, Amazon, Facebook and Uber joined dozens of other companies in publicly committing to hire and train some of the 95,000 Afghan refugees who are expected to be resettled in the United States over the next year, about half of whom are already here.

But nearly two months since U.S. evacuations from Kabul ended and one month since the companies' public commitments, efforts to follow through with those promised jobs remain stalled. That, experts say, is partly to do with the fact that the vast majority of Afghan arrivals are still being held at military bases, partly to do with their legal classification and partly to do with a refugee resettlement system that was systematically dismantled by the Trump administration.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Protocol | Fintech

How European fintech startup N26 is preparing for U.S. regulations

"There's a lot more scrutiny being placed on fintech. We are definitely mindful of it."

In an interview with Protocol, Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, discussed the company's approach to regulations in the U.S.

Photo: N26

N26's monster $900 million funding round announced Monday underlined the German startup's momentum in the digital banking market.

Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, said the funding will be used for expansion and also to improve "our core offering to make this the most reliable bank that our customers can trust," she told Protocol.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Latest Stories