FBI agents raided a large Hindu temple in the US on Tuesday as a new lawsuit claimed it was built by “slave labour” workers from India who were lured to the US and forced to work long hours for just a few dollars per day, way below the minimum wage.
The lawsuit accuses the leaders of the Hindu organisation known as Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or BAPS, of human trafficking and wage law violations.
The lawsuit says more than 200 workers, most of whom speak no English, signed employment contracts in India.
They travelled to the US on visas meant for “those who work in religious vocations or occupations”, according to the lawsuit. They were then taken to the ornate temple, known as a mandir, made of Italian and Indian marble.
When they arrived at the temple site in New Jersey, their passports were confiscated and they were forced to work from dawn to dusk with hardly any days off, for around US$1.20 per hour. They allegedly were given just US$50 in cash per month, with the rest deposited into their accounts in India.
The lawsuit said workers lived in a fenced-in compound where their movements were monitored by cameras and guards. They were told that if they left, police would arrest them because they didn’t have their passports, the suit said.
The workers were allegedly Dalits – members of the lowest rung of India’s caste system.
An attorney representing several of the workers, Daniel Werner, said on Tuesday, “It is disturbing that this has gone on for years in our state, behind the temple’s walls.”
He said some workers were on the site for two years or even longer, and were not allowed to leave unless accompanied by a BAPS official.
BAPS CEO Kanu Patel told The New York Times, “I respectfully disagree with the wage claim.”
DB Sagar, president of the Washington-based International Commission for Dalit Rights, told the AP that Dalits are an easy target for exploitation because they are the poorest people in India.
“They need something to survive, to protect their family,” Sagar, a Dalit himself, said, adding that if the allegations in the lawsuit are true, they amount to “modern-day slavery”.
BAPS is linked to contentious issues in India, publicly supporting and funding the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, built on the site of a mosque demolished by Hindu nationalists.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has close ties to the organisation.