Three labour unions on Thursday urged government agencies in the United States to look into the “egregious abuses” faced by over 200 Indians workers who were forced by a religious sect to build a massive Hindu temple in New Jersey for meagre wages and in violation of the country’s labour and immigration laws.
In a statement, the organisations demanded authorities to protect these construction workers, restore their stolen wages, and enforce all relevant labor standards at this job site.
The unions called the US State Department to prevent further abuse of the Religious Worker Visa program, which they said “results in the improper classification and abuse of workers”.
They also called on the country’s Department of Labor “to rigorously enforce established wage, labor and safety laws and standards on every jobsite in this country and for the protection of every worker in this country, whether immigrant or native born”.
The signatories of the statement are the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers and its Administrative District Council of New Jersey, along with the Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh, a labor union representing more than 3,000 stone carvers in Rajasthan.
The matter came to the light on Tuesday, when a lawsuit was filed at the US District Court in Newark on behalf of more than 200 Indian construction workers, alleging “shocking violations of the most basic laws applicable to workers in this country, including laws prohibiting forced labour”.
The workers accused their employer, Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or BAPS, of recruiting them in India, bringing them to the United States and forcing them to work on the temple 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.
After the case was filed, the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor descended on the temple premises and removed 90 workers from the site.
In its statement on Thursday, the unions said that eyewitnesses told them that workers on the construction site first stopped work after a labourer, identified as Mohanlal, died on the job. The protesting workers, however, were fired and forcibly returned to India by BAPS, they said.
The organisations said that the stone masons who were brought in from India by BAPS hail from the same communities – Dalit, Adivasi and other marginalised sections “who experience extremely high levels of employment discrimination and poverty at home, as well as in the US”.
“These workers represent two ends of the same story and face common issues, such as lack of workplace safety, wage theft, violation of legal norms of employment, and systemic victimisation by employers,” the statement said.
The signatories added that the conditions on temple project exploit and endanger not only the hundreds of stonemasons on the site, but also numerous other craftworkers who are likewise exposed. “If left unchecked, this project will debase and undermine the area standards for all construction workers in New Jersey, and leave a shameful mark on the entire industry,” they said.