The FBI has also raided the building, from which they removed about 90 workers who were allegedly paid less than $1 USD per hour.
A federal lawsuit has accused a large Hindu temple in New Jersey of luring vulnerable Indian men to the United States and forcing them to work up to 90 hours per week for $1 an hour.
According to NBC News, the lawsuit—filed Tuesday in federal court—alleges that the leaders of Bochasanwasi Askhar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, a Hindu sect also known as BAPS, partook in “shocking violations” of the workers’ human rights, including forced labor, trafficking, and wage theft.
“It was just an extremely traumatic and isolating experience,” said attorney Patricia Kakalec, one several lawyers representing the workers. “I’ve represented migrant farmworkers, I’ve done low-wage worker cases, and this is really quite shocking.”
The New York Times reports that workers purportedly lived in trailers near the BAPS compound, which is located in Robbinsville, New Jersey. Before coming to the United States, they had been promised adequate wages, standard work hours, and adequate time off.
Most of the workers were then brought to the United States on religious R-1 visas, a temporary visa category used for clergy and religious lay workers.
BAPS told the men that they should tell the U.S. embassy that they were skilled carvers or decorative painters who would assist in decorating the temple.
Instead, attorneys for the men say their passports were confiscated after arriving to BAPS, and they were then forced to do heavy manual labor. Sometimes they would be coerced into working 13 hours per day, lifting heavy stones, operating cranes, building roads and drainage ditches, and shoveling snow.
On average, the men only earned $450 per month.
BAPS has since denied the allegations against it.
“I respectfully disagree with the wage claim,” said BAPS executive Kanu Patel.
However, the New York Times observed that Patel specified that he was not in charge of day-to-day operations at the temple site.
BAPS spokesperson Lenin Joshi also disputed the workers’ story, saying the men did “complicated” work with stones that had been carved in India.
“They have to be fit together like a jigsaw puzzle,” Joshi said. “In that process, we need specialized artisans.”
“We are naturally shaken by this turn of events and are sure that once the full facts come out, we will be able to provide answers and show that these accusations and allegations are without merit,” he added.
However, the New York Times and NBC noted that three different federal agencies—the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Labor—raided the BAPS compound on Tuesday, removing 90 workers from the site.
The Times adds that most of the workers are Dalits, the so-called “Untouchables” at the bottom of the Hindu caste system.
Immigration attorney Swati Sawant, herself a Dalit, told the New York Times that she helped secretly organize the workers while arranging legal teams to begin initiating labor and wage claims against BAPS.
“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,” Sawant said.