Indian workers allege ‘forced labor’ at Hindu temple in New Jersey

"Baps mandir 2"

BAPS  temple in Robbinsville trafficked hundreds of Indian laborers, camouflaged as religious volunteers: Lawsuit.

Six former workers have accused operators of a major Hindu temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey, of trafficking hundreds of Indian laborers, camouflaged as religious volunteers while keeping them locked down in the very temple they were building.

The workers filed a federal civil lawsuit Tuesday against Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam (BAPS) Swaminarayan Sanstha Inc., a Hindu religious organization, and several business entities, according to local media reports.

As reported by the New York Times earlier, FBI agents and other law enforcement officials raided the temple Tuesday following the lawsuit accusing the temple of exploiting them and paying the equivalent of roughly $1.20 an hour.

“We were first made aware of the accusations early this morning, we are taking them very seriously and are thoroughly reviewing the issues raised,” Matthew Frankel, a spokesman for BAPS said in a statement cited by local Asbury Park Press.

READ: FBI raids BAPS temple in Robbinsville, NJ, following lawsuit by construction workers (May 11, 2021)

“We’re very surprised by this. They’ve had a great relationship with the town. They’ve been a great corporate citizen,” Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried was quoted as saying of the temple in a phone interview with the Asbury Park Press.

“I’ve certainly never seen anything that would give me pause during my visits there. This is absolutely very surprising.”

The township later also issued a formal statement Tuesday, acknowledging “federal law enforcement activity” but denying knowledge of “any labor issues that may have been present.”

“The Township was aware of temporary housing on the site and conducted inspections of that housing in April and June of 2020, until in-person inspections were suspended due to Covid-19,” the statement read. “As to not interfere with this ongoing federal investigation, the Township will have no further comment.”

The laborers’ passports were taken “as soon as they left the airport at JFK” and “Security guards in BAPS uniforms were stationed at the temple premises where the workers lived and worked,” according to the complaint.

The workers alleged that they were paid only $450 per month, of which they received $50 in the US and the rest were deposited in rupees in their accounts in India.

READ: Will stand in all of North America as one of the greatest places of faith: Sen. Cory Booker at inauguration of BAPS temple in New Jersey (August 12, 2014)

They also that their pay was cut if they spoke to outsiders or if they did not follow rules like wearing helmets and a swami “called the workers ‘worms,’ thus exacerbating the psychological coercion the workers experienced.”

The workers were forbidden from talking with temple visitors, under pain of losing their already “meager” wages, according to the complaint. “Supervisors told the workers that they police would arrest them if they left,” the complaint states.

The defendants deliberately sought out workers from the “Scheduled Caste,” or “Dalit,” as well as “other marginalized communities in India,” according to the complaint.

One of the workers, a man named Moham Lal, “died while he was subjected to forced labor at the temple, and the Defendants retaliated against other workers who organized to demand, among other things, that Moham Lal’s remains to be treated according to his — not the Defendants’ — religious rituals and that the Defendants improve working conditions,” according to the complaint.

Altogether, “the workers spent years building, improving upon, and maintaining the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir,” or temple, according to the lawsuit.

The workers’ lawsuit also named three New Jersey residents — Bharat Bhai, Pankaj Patel and Kanu Patel — who allegedly employed or supervised workers at the temple.

The law suit alleged that those who recruited and supervised them “weaponized” the caste system to “coerce” the men from Dalit castes because of their vulnerabilities in India.

Their 42-page case document alleges that they were made to work at the temple for more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week with days off only occasionally for which they were paid less than $1.20 an hour, an amount far less than the state minimum wage that was $10 in 2019 and $11 in 2020.

Their court papers, however, say that they were instructed while applying for their visa to tell the US embassy staff that they were going to the US for “volunteer work at the temple” and “would be performing the work as a service to the deities” even though they assert that they were not members of BAPS.

According to the court document, although came to the US with an R-1 visa, which is granted to missionaries and religious workers, they did not perform any religious work and instead were made to do “dangerous” manual work at the temple.

The men filing the case are Mukesh Kumar, Keshav Kumar, Devi Laal, Niranjan, Pappu, and Brajendra.

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