Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents raided a temple in New Jersey Tuesday after allegations that a Hindu sect lured hundreds of low-caste men from India to work on the building’s construction for about $1 per hour under grueling conditions, numerous sources reported.
At least 200 low-caste men are involved in a lawsuit that accused Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, a Hindu sect known as BAPS, of exploiting the men at the Robbinesville site, according to CBS.
Federal agents descended on a temple in New Jersey, built by a prominent Hindu sect with close ties to India’s ruling party, after Dalit workers said they had been lured there from India, confined to the temple grounds and forced to work for $1 an hour. https://t.co/MmX0NvRtfU
— The New York Times (@nytimes) May 11, 2021
Lawyers representing the men said they worked nearly 13 hours per day and did intense manual labor like building roads and digging ditches for roughly $450 per month, according to The New York Times. They were allegedly forbidden from speaking to visitors and religious volunteers and were given foods with insignificant nutritional value, like lentils and potatoes. The men also reportedly faced having their pays reduced if they committed minor violations, like not wearing a helmet.
The lawsuit says the men were promised standard work hours and time off, the Times reported. They lived in trailers on the property and allegedly were not allowed to leave, CBS reported.
“They thought they would have a good job and see America. They didn’t think they would be treated like animals, or like machines that aren’t going to get sick,” Swati Sawant, an immigration lawyer who arranged legal teams to represent the temple workers, according to the Times.
Most of the men are Dalit, which is the lowest caste in India’s caste system, accoring to the Times. After one man died from an apparent illness in the fall, workers reached out for legal assistance.
“They were brought in as religious workers, but they were not religious workers and they certainly were not volunteers,” Patricia Kakaleck, who is representing six former temple workers, told CBS. She added that the men had their passports taken and their visas confiscated, and were told that if they left, they could be taken in by police.
Multiple federal agencies, including the FBI, were involved in the Tuesday raid, which resulted in nearly 90 workers being removed from the site, according to the Times.
BAPS builds ornate temples globally that have fountains, wandering peacocks, and other extravagant features. The New Jersey temple opened in 2014 but is under construction, with the goal of being BAPS’ crown jewel in the U.S., according to the Times.
BAPS leadership has disputed the workers’ claims of exploitation.
“I respectfully disagree with the wage claim,” Kanu Patel, BAPS’ chief executive, said, according to the Times. Patel said he was not in charge of daily operations at the site, however.
Lenin Joshi, a spokesman for the sect, said they were “naturally shaken” and would be able to prove that the “accusations and allegations are without merit,” according to the Times.
Lawyers involved in the lawsuit believe it may be one of the largest forced-labor cases to arise in the U.S. Daniel Warner, one of the attorneys, told the Times it could be the largest since more than 70 Thai workers were held captive in a garment factory in California in 1995, according to the Times.
The Thai workers were tricked into signing agreements that would bring them to the U.S. to work, and were given fake passports before being smuggled into the country. Upon arrival, the owners of the sweatshop that recruited them confiscated their passports, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The case is known as the first modern human trafficking case and led to the passing of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.
Warner said the alleged exploitation at the temple site was similar to labor exploitation overseas. “But what’s striking is that this is in the United States,” he said, according to the Times.