In a major embarrassment for the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, popularly known as BAPS, a lawsuit has been filed against it for exploiting Dalit workers brought from India and forcing them to work for long hours at the New Jersey temple for meagre pay.
The organisation has been alleged of “forced labour, trafficking with respect to forced labour, document servitude, conspiracy, and confiscation of immigration documents in the course of and with the intent to engage in fraud in foreign labor contracting”.
Apart from BAPS, people associated with it including Pankaj Patel, Kanu Patel, Bharat bhai, and Swami Prasanand have been also made individual defendants in the case. The suit has been filed in the US District Court in Newark by six construction workers brought from India on behalf of 200 other fellow Indians.
Paid hourly wages of $1.20 against minimum wage of $12
The Indian workers in the suit, a copy of which is with Gujarat Exclusive, alleged that they were made to work for over 12 hours a day (87 hours a week), seven days a week, and provided few off a year for a paltry sum of $450 per month, or about $1.20 per hour.
Notably, the minimum wage is $12 an hour in New Jersey and the US law suggests that services beyond 40 hours a week will have to be paid at the rate of 1.5 times of the hourly pay rate. The lawsuit claims that the pay of the construction workers was less than the federal minimum wage in effect as far back as 1963.
Workers brought on R-1 visa
According to the lawsuit, the Indian workers were brought to the US on R-1 visas meant for those who work in “religious vocations or occupations”. While the Indian workers were taken to the US as religious volunteers, they were made to work as manual labours.
Passports confiscated by BAPS
The workers in the suit also claimed that their passports were taken away by BAPS agents the moment they came out of the airport upon their arrival in the US to prevent them from leaving. BAPS supervisors also threatened the workers that they will be arrested by police if they leave.
It has been also alleged by the Dalit workers that the temple administration did what they could do to remind them of their place in the social hierarchy. The lawsuit provides that Swami Prasanand called them “worms”.
Not allowed to speak with outsiders
Also, the workers alleged they were not allowed to talk to outsiders and were threatened with pay cuts, arrest and return to India for violation. Once on their construction jobs, the complaint-workers said “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.”
FBI raids New Jersey temple
The Swaminarayan temple in New Jersey was raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, and the US Department of Labour to investigate allegations of forced labour against BAPS, according to a New York Times report. US agencies removed 90 labourers from the temple site after the raid.
“We were first made aware of the accusations this morning, we are taking them very seriously and are thoroughly reviewing the issues raised,” a BAPS spokesperson was quoted as saying in a statement by a news agency.
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