Chinese bus maker draws fire for paying Chinese workers barista-level wages in the US

BYD’s bumpy ride.
BYD’s bumpy ride.
Image: Todd Woody/Quartz
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The crowd of protestors thronging the sidewalks of Chinese automaker BYD’s Los Angeles headquarters last week wasn’t quite the welcome the company hoped for when it opened a factory in California to assemble electric buses for local transit agencies. As we’ve written, BYD hopes to use its battery-powered bus to build its brand in the US so it can break into the American car market with an electric sports utility vehicle called the e6.

But BYD has already run afoul of California labor laws and the protestors from a local union-affiliated group underscored the challenges China companies face when setting up shop in the US. Last month, California officials fined BYD $99,245 for violating minimum wage laws by under-paying workers brought in from China at its factory in Lancaster, a desert community north of Los Angeles. Now the labor group, called the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), wants the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach to revoke $32.8 million worth of contacts they signed with BYD this year for electric buses.

“BYD has hidden abusive treatment of Chinese workers and substandard electric buses behind a false promise to provide good jobs and clean transportation to Angelenos,” LAANE said in a statement.

The company fired back today, denying the allegations and saying its Chinese workers were paid the equivalent $2,200 a month, or about $13.75 an hour, and received free housing. “To transition its technology most smoothly, BYD in China has temporarily loaned some highly-experienced engineers, battery specialists and bus design specialists to transfer the company’s cutting-edge technology in China to its California employees,” the company said in a statement.

BYD is appealing the nearly $100,000 in fines. But arguing that it pays its Chinese engineers in California the equivalent salary of an experienced Starbucks barista probably won’t help it win much goodwill in its new market.