Hundreds of marginalized workers from India were hired to build a massive Hindu temple in New Jersey where they were forced to work long hours with minimal pay in violation of U.S. labor and immigration laws, according to a lawsuit filed on Tuesday.
The complaint, filed on the behalf of over 200 Indian construction workers at the temple, alleges “shocking violations of the most basic laws applicable to workers in the country, including laws prohibiting forced labor.”
The suit accuses their employer, Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or BAPS, and the entities who recruited the workers in India, of bringing them to the U.S. and forcing them to work more than 87 hours a week with payment as little as $450 a month, or $1.20 an hour.
New Jersey’s minimum wage is $12 an hour and U.S. law requires the pay rate of hourly workers to rise to time-and-a-half when they work over 40 hours a week.
The lawsuit says the workers were kept under constant surveillance and were threatened with pay cuts, arrest and deportation if they spoke to outsiders. On Tuesday, FBI agents visited the temple in Robbinsville, located around 20 minutes from Trenton.
“We were there on court-authorized law enforcement activity,” confirmed Doreen Holder, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation field office in Newark. Holder declined to give any further details about their mission.
A spokesman for BAPS, which describes itself as a socio-spiritual Hindu organization, issued a statement saying, “We were first made aware of the accusations this morning, we are taking them very seriously and are throughly reviewing the issues raised.”
The lawsuit said the BAPS entities own the land the temple was built upon and arranged for its construction. The temple has been open for years, but there is ongoing work to expand it.
The plaintiffs, five temple construction workers, said that in India, they belonged to the Scheduled Caste, formerly considered “untouchables” and socially outcasted. The complaint alleges “they were forced to live and work in a fenced, guarded compound which they were not allowed to leave unaccompanied by overseers affiliated with (BAPS).”
In addition to claiming workers were falsely classified as religious workers and volunteers upon entering the U.S., the suit says the workers seek “the full value of their services” and any unspecified damages or other compensation.
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