11:52 a.m.: This post has been updated to include comment from BAPS.
FBI agents descended on the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha Hindu temple in Robbinsville early Tuesday morning, on the heels of a lawsuit that claims 200 Indian nationals were trafficked to the United States under false pretenses and forced to live and work on temple grounds for $1.20 an hour.
The class action lawsuit names six plaintiffs—Mukesh Kumar, Keshav Kumar, Devi Laal, Niranjan, Pappu and Brajendra—and alleges wage theft and “shocking abuses” by BAPS. The workers often exceeded 80 hours a week with few days off for what amounted to $450 a month.
The lawsuit seeks the workers’ unpaid wages, an award of money for other damages, and a court order against BAPS.
According to the complaint, 200 Indian nationals were recruited and brought to the United States under R-1 religious visas to do stonework and other construction on the temple. Under federal immigration law, R-1 visas are available to those who minister or work in religious occupations—BAPS told the United States government that the workers were coming to New Jersey as religious volunteers. In reality, though, they performed manual labor, not religious tasks. Many, the suit says, were not of the Hindu denomination.
“We were first made aware of these accusations early Tuesday morning, and we are taking them very seriously,” said Matthew Frankel a spokesperson for BAPS. “We are thoroughly reviewing the issues raised.”
The suit says that BAPS intentionally recruited workers from the Scheduled Caste, also known as Dalit, and other marginalized communities in India in order to maintain control over them. In India, people belonging this caste have been referred to as “untouchables” who “endure near complete social ostracization.” BAPS used this to its advantage, the complaint says, by referring to the workers as “worms” and continuously reminding them of their perceived place in the social hierarchy.
“These individuals have suffered greatly—financially as a result of the wage theft, physically as a result of the grueling work they were forced to undertake, and mentally as a result of being forced for stay within the temple compound for months, and for many, years,” said Swati Sawant, an attorney for the workers. “They are brave for standing up for their rights.”
The suit states that workers’ passports were confiscated upon arrival to the United States. They were forced to live and work in a fenced compound watched by BAPS uniformed security guards and were not allowed to leave the grounds unaccompanied.
The plaintiffs also allege that they were constantly monitored by cameras and threatened with fines, physical restraint, harm and arrest. Workers were banned from speaking with visitors to the temple and were faced with pay reduction if they didn’t obey.
One man, Moham Lal, died on the grounds of the temple last year. Other workers organized to demand that Lal’s remains were handled according to his religious rituals and that BAPS improve working conditions.
“This is a horrific case of worker exploitation and it is even more disturbing that it has gone on for years in New Jersey behind the temple’s walls,” said Daniel Werner of Radford and Keebaugh, one of the attorneys who filed the suit. “These workers were coerced through lies to come to the United States to work and then suffered tremendously—they were basically forced into servitude.”
Robbinsville Township released the following statement:
“Based upon media reports, the township was made aware of federal law enforcement activity this morning on the BAPS property located in Robbinsville. The township’s jurisdiction over the property is limited to land use and Uniform Construction Code (UCC) matters. At no time in approving BAPS’s land use applications, or in conducting UCC inspections on the property, did Robbinsville Township officials witness, or become aware 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. As to not interfere with this ongoing federal investigation, the township will have no further comment.”
Community News has reached out the FBI’s Newark field office and BAPS. This post will be updated.