Temporary workers brought from India filed a lawsuit alleging “shocking” violations of the most basic laws for workers, including those preventing forced labour against an influential Hindu sect in New Jersey involved in the construction of a temple complex.
About 200 workers alleged they were paid less than USD 1.20 an hour, which was the minimum federal wage way back in 1963, instead of the mandated USD 12/hour.
They said they were forced to work nearly 13 hours a day, all seven days a week; lived in crowded temporary shelters at the temple complex; were prevented from leaving the area unaccompanied, and were verbally abused as “worms” by their employers.
Many of them identified themselves as Dalits.
The sect is named Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), has 3,850 centers worldwide, and calls themselves Swaminarayan followers.
The class-action lawsuit was filed by civil rights lawyers representing six workers of the temple as plaintiffs and 200 in all. The six plaintiffs are Mukesh Kumar, Keshav Kumar, Devi Laal, Niranjan, Pappu, and Brajendra; they say they are Dalits from Rajasthan.
The FBI said its agents conducted a “court authorised” action at the complex on Tuesday and Wednesday it sought “any info or tips” about the order. The India Civil Watch International (ICWI) told news agency PTI that the FBI rescued around 200 workers, “most of them Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis” on Tuesday.
Once on the temple campus, the workers “were forced to live and work in a fenced, guarded compound which they were not allowed to leave unaccompanied”. They lived under the watchful eyes of security guards in BAPS uniforms and cameras “monitored and recorded” their activities. The lawsuit alleged that they were prohibited from speaking to outsiders and failure to obey rules could result in pay cuts.
According to a report by The New York Times, the temple has previously come to the attention of authorities. In 2017, a 17-year-old boy who was among the groups of religious volunteers who have helped on the construction project died after a fall. His family filed a lawsuit against BAPS, which it settled for an undisclosed amount. Federal workplace safety inspectors determined it had been an accident.