New Jersey: Several US agencies have reportedly raided the Swaminarayan temple in New Jersey after five Indians complained that they were made to do forced labour in the construction and maintenance of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha temple.
In a lawsuit filed in a federal court in New Jersey, the labours said they were hired from India's Rajasthan and are from schedule caste.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, and the US Department of Labour jointly conducted the raid and rescued 90 labourers from the construction site.
The labours alleged that they were paid merely 10 per cent of the hourly minimum wage as against the New Jersey labour law, and forced to live in gruelling conditions.
They allege that the defendants in the case – those who recruited and supervised them – "weaponised" the caste system to "coerce" the men from Dalit castes because of their vulnerabilities in India.
Their 42-page case document, which was obtained by IANS from the court system, 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.
They asked the court to treat their case as a class action suit, which would automatically include about 200 workers who they said had worked there under similar conditions.
The case lists as the defendants in the case four BAPS organisations and five individuals who it says are connected to the temple and were their supervisors.
They could not be reached for their reaction, but the New York Times quoted one of them identified as Kanus Patel telling it, "I respectfully disagree with the wage claim."
The newspaper also reported that BAPS Spokesperson Lenin Joshi said, "We are naturally shaken by this turn of events and are sure that once the full facts come out, we will be able to provide answers and show that these accusations and allegations are without merit."
According to the court document, the workers allege that their passports were taken away on their arrival in the US and they were not allowed out of the temple complex alone and they were watched with cameras and guards.
They assert 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.
They alleged that their pay was cut if they spoke to outsiders or if they did not follow rules like wearing helmets.
One of the workers identified as "Moham Lal died while he was subjected to forced labour at the temple" and that the officials mentioned in the case retaliated against the workers who demanded that the man's final rites be conducted according to their tradition and that their working conditions be improved.
The case papers also allege that the "defendants intentionally recruited workers from the Scheduled Caste, also known as Dalit, and other marginalised communities in India" because of their vulnerability "did what they could to remind these marginalised workers of their place in the social hierarchy."
(with inputs from IANS)