Workers from India employed at a temple construction site in Robbinsville in New Jersey state of the United States have filed a lawsuit alleging they were forced to work long hours for low pay after being brought to the country by religious sect Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
In an operation conducted on Tuesday morning, the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor descended on the temple premises and about 90 workers were removed from the site, the New York Times reported.
The complaint mentions “shocking violations of the most basic laws applicable to workers in this country, including laws prohibiting forced labour”.
The lawsuit, which names five of the workers, alleged that they were forced to work for more than 87 hours a week for $450 a month (over Rs 33,000), or about $1.20 an hour. New Jersey’s minimum wage is $12 an hour and US law requires the pay rate for most hourly workers rise to 1.5 times when they work more than 40 hours a week, according to Reuters. The complaint has been filed in US District Court in Newark on behalf of more than 200 workers.
The workers, mostly Dalits, were brought to the US on religious visas, or R-1 visas and their passports were confiscated, the lawsuit mentioned. It added that the workers were forbidden from talking to visitors and religious volunteers. They were confined within the fenced-in, guarded site and faced pay cuts for minor violations, such as being seen without a helmet.
The workers were asked to sign several documents in English and instructed to tell the US embassy that they were skilled carvers or decorative painters. However, the complainants, who claimed to have been working on the temple since 2012, said that they were employed as manual labours, according to the New York Times.
One of the labourers died at the site last year, prompting a backlash among the workers, following which they contacted Swati Sawant, an immigration lawyer in New Jersey. Sawant said that she secretly organised the workers and arranged legal teams to pursue both wage and immigration claims.
“They thought they would have a good job and see America,” Sawant told the New York Times. “They didn’t think they would be treated like animals, or like machines that aren’t going to get sick.”
The Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, on its official website describes itself as a “socio-spiritual Hindu organisation with its roots in the Vedas”.
The sect started the construction of the New Jersey temple in 2014 and aims to make it the “largest Hindu temple” in the US. The sect has close ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who gave an eulogy after the death of its spiritual head Pramukh Swami Maharaj in 2016. Modi also laid the foundation stone for a temple the group is building in Abu Dhabi, the New York Times reported.
In February, the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha donated Rs 2.11 crore for the construction of the temple of Hindu deity Ram in Ayodhya.