From New Jersey, the story of alleged caste discrimination and exploitation
Workers at an under-investigation New Jersey temple were forced to perform manual labour at 1963 pay levels for double or triple the hours they were initially promised but a fellow worker’s death galvanised them into organising, according to a lawsuit filed in the case and conversations with lawyers and unions helping the complainants.
The temple was raided by federal agents last Tuesday after allegations that the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan (BAPS) Sanstha exploited 200 workers, many of them Dalit, for the project.
The class action lawsuit was filed in a New Jersey district court and first reported by the New York Times.
“These individuals have suffered greatly – financially as a result of the wage theft, physically as a result of the grueling work they were forced to undertake, and mentally as a result of being forced for stay within the temple compound for months, and for many, years,” said Swati Sawant, an attorney for the people who worked at the temple in Robbinsville.
“We were first made aware of these accusations early Tuesday morning. We take each seriously and are conducting a thorough internal review. These allegations are also part of a pending lawsuit and tied to claims made by the plaintiffs,” Matthew Frankel, spokesperson for BAPS, said over email.
The 42-page lawsuit, which asked for a jury trial, traced an alleged history of exploitation of workers, who worked at the temple since 2011, didn’t read or write in English. All six named plaintiffs in the case are Dalits.
The workers were brought to the United States (US) on R1 visas, meant for religious vocations and members of faith-based outfits, through agents and personal BAPS contacts. The workers were told they’d work four to seven hours a day, and later made to labour for 12-13 hours daily.
“Although the Plaintiffs and R-1 workers would be performing manual labor for pay at the temple, they were told to describe their work in the United States as volunteer work at the temple, and to say that they would be performing the work as a service to the deities,” the lawsuit alleged.
BAPS members held their passport and visas during the recruitment process, gave it to them during transit and took it back once the workers reached the US.
“The plaintiffs and the R-1 workers were never able to recover their passports or visas during the entire time they were in the United States,” the lawsuit said.
Once they started working at the temple – some started in summer of 2018, others in 2019 – they were given a day off every 30-40 days and paid ₹31,000- ₹35,000 a month. Of this, around ₹3500 was paid to them in cash and the rest deposited in their bank account. Large sums – up to ₹7,500 – would be deducted for infractions.
The figures quoted in the lawsuit came out to about ₹95 an hour, or $1.20 an hour.
Worker unions pointed out that in comparison, the current US federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour and New Jersey minimum wage is $11/hour for most employees. The pay was comparable to the US minimum wage limit in 1963: $1.25 (not adjusted for inflation).
Additionally, the workers couldn’t leave the premises because their papers were with BAPS, 50 cameras monitored them and threats that local police would arrest them if they stepped out. “Workers were told that if they spoke to outside people or if they left the temple premises they would have deductions taken from their wage,” the lawsuit alleged.
When a plaintiff told a BAPS member about the pay disparity, he was allegedly told he was “serving god”.
A key complaint was that BAPS profited from the vulnerable status of the workers – both on account of their marginalised caste and employment. A top BAPS member allegedly called the worker “worms” and others were forced to make financial guarantees that other workers from India to take their place when they went back home. “One worker was fined 35,000 rupees when a worker he had guaranteed in fact did not return to New Jersey to work,” said the lawsuit.
But protests broke out after a worker, Mohan Lal, died, and others demanded better working conditions and a funeral in accordance to the customs followed by Lal.
“They stopped work in protest and refused to return to a workplace they knew to be unhealthy and unsafe. The protest leaders were fired and forcibly returned to India,” said the Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh, a labour union that helped the New Jersey workers.
The workers hailed from two districts of Rajasthan and came back over the past six to eight months, said Madan Lal Meghwal of the Sangh who conducted interviews with the returnees.
“BAPS has a lot of influence in Rajasthan, from where it has been hiring temple workers for many years. In many cases, the workers are worried about their jobs and keep quiet,” he added.
The kind of work the New Jersey workers did — cutting and laying stones, removing garbage, road work, dipping stones in chemicals, and other tasks — can lead to long-term health effects. The Sangh, in its interviews, found that workers inhaled dust from cut stones and fumes from chemical solutions used to soak the stones. “This can lead to silicosis and other health damages,” Meghwal said.
Since the allegetions became public, some Hindu groups have said a local American company was responsible for the exploitation, not BAPS.
They cite an April 30 stop-work order by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (NJDOL) against a Newark-based construction company; the order came after visits to two of the company’s current worksites, BAPS Temple in Robbinsville and BAPS Temple in Edison.
“These inspections found the contractor was paying the workers in cash off the books and did not have workers’ compensation insurance,” the NJDOL said in a statement.
But the worker unions rejected these charges and NJDOL officials clarified that the stop-work order was not related to the court-ordered federal search of the premises two weeks later.
“In any case, the workers have clearly said that BAPS members picked them out, their medical examination was done at BAPS premises in Ahmedabad and their visa process was also done by them. So to say that BAPS was not responsible for recruiting them or their condition is evading responsibility,” said Priyanka Jain, a labour researcher.