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Lawsuit Filed Against BAPS for Allegedly Using Forced Labor in Construction of Massive New Jersey Temple

Lawsuit Filed Against BAPS for Allegedly Using Forced Labor in Construction of Massive New Jersey Temple

  • The FBI is reportedly investigating the construction of the temple in temple in Robbinsville where the majority of the laborers are Dalit, were reportedly brought to the United States on religious visas, or R-1 visas, but presented to the U.S. government as volunteers.
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Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly exploiting laborers who were brought from India for the construction of a mammoth temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey. FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents arrived at the temple on May 11 morning, Robbinsville township spokesman John Nalbone told radio station NJ 101.5. He said Robbinsville police and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office were not involved in the investigation. 

The New York Times reported that a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the laborers on May 11. The complaint named six men who said they were among more than 200 Indian nationals who were recruited to come to the U.S. starting about 2018 and were made to work grueling hours under often dangerous conditions on the New Jersey site. The Times report said, “low-caste men had been lured from India to work for about $1 an hour.” 

Swati Sawant, a Dalit immigration lawyer in New Jersey, told The New York Times that she first learned of the men’s plight last year. She said she secretly organized the temple workers and arranged legal teams to pursue both wage and immigration claims.

“At least three federal agencies — the F.B.I., the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor — were involved in the action early Tuesday [May 11],” the Times report said.

The New York Times, citing a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, said that workers, who lived in trailers hidden from view, had been promised jobs helping to build the temple with standard work hours and ample time off.  The majority of workers are Dalits, traditionally been considered untouchables, in India’s caste system. They were brought to the United States on religious visas, or R-1 visas — temporary visas used for clergy and religious workers — and presented to the U.S. government as volunteers, according to the claim. 

The complaint further states that these workers were asked “to sign several documents, often in English, and instructed to tell U.S. embassy staffers that they were skilled carvers or decorative painters,” The New York Times reported. 

BAPS spokesman Lenin Joshi, vehemently denied the accusations. “They are without merit,” he told American Kahani in a rushed phone conversation. He said that the organization is working on gathering evidence to prove that the accusations and allegations are false. Meanwhile, he told The New York Times that the men did complicated work connecting stones that had been hand-carved in India. “They have to be fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. In that process, we need specialized artisans,” he said. 

BAPS spokesman Lenin Joshi, BAPS vehemently denied the accusations. “They are without merit,” he told American Kahani. He said that the organization is working on gathering evidence to prove that the accusations and allegations are false.

On Twitter, a user named Rambhakt Vedic blasted The New York Times report. “BAPS is primarily patronized by Patels who are Shudras, but see NYT and others bring in caste angle in what is a minimum wage issue.”

The BAPS describes itself as “a spiritual, volunteer-driven organization dedicated to improving society through individual growth by fostering the Hindu ideals of faith, unity, and selfless service.”

The Times report, further citing the lawsuit, noted that the men’s passports had been confiscated. They were confined to the fenced-in and guarded site, they were forbidden from talking to visitors, they survived on a bland diet of lentils and potatoes, and their pay was docked for minor violations, such as being seen without a helmet. “They thought they would have a good job and see America, Swati Sawant, an immigration lawyer in New Jersey, told The New York Times. “They didn’t think they would be treated like animals, or like machines that aren’t going to get sick.” Sawant, who is also Dalit told The New York Times that she first learned of the men’s plight last year. She said she secretly organized the temple workers and arranged legal teams to pursue both wage and immigration claims.

The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (NJDOL) issued a stop work order on April 30 against Cunha’s Construction Inc. and owner Nuno Cunha based on repeated and ongoing violations of state wage and hour laws after visits to the BAPS temple in Robbinsville and Edison. “Newark-based Cunha’s Construction Inc. was ordered to halt work at current and future projects for the duration of the order, which will remain in effect until the contractor complies with state wage and hour laws and all outstanding back wages and penalties have been paid,” according to a NJDOL press release. The NJDOL’s Division of Wage and Hour Compliance conducted site visits at two of the company’s current worksites, BAPS Temple in Robbinsville and BAPS Temple in Edison, after learning of the projects from workers. These inspections found the contractor was paying workers in cash off the books and did not have workers’ compensation insurance. Other violations involve the misclassification of construction workers by paying them in cash off the books, failure to pay overtime, failure to keep records, hindrance of the investigation, and unpaid or late paid wages.  

Sawant was contacted by Mukesh Kumar, a 37-year-old worker who has since returned to India, The New York Times reported. One laborer died from an apparent illness last autumn, prompting a backlash among the workers, according to the complaint and another worker. Kumar, who is named in the federal lawsuit, told The New York Times that BAPS’s response to the illness and death of his co-worker prompted him and others to come forward. “We said, ‘We don’t want to die like that,’” he said.

Daniel Werner, a lawyer in the wage claim suit, told The New York Times he believed this could be the first forced-labor case of its scale in the United States since dozens of Thai garment workers were discovered laboring in horrible conditions in El Monte, Calif. in 1995 — a landmark case that helped lead to the creation of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. He said the New Jersey case “could be compared to instances of severe worker exploitation seen overseas.” He continued: “There are parallels in other places. But what’s striking is that this is in the United States.”

By midday on May 11, federal agents had loaded about 90 workers onto buses to be taken off the site, The New York Times reported, quoting a person familiar with the matter.

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“This is unacceptable, and we call upon all Hindu Americans, and particularly Swaminarayan devotees, to speak out against this casteist exploitation taking place in their name,” Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human rights told American Kahani in a statement. “We applaud these workers for speaking out, and we are grateful for the advocacy of Swati Sawant, a Dalit lawyer who is helping fight their case,” she said. “For those in our community who deny that caste still exists in the United States, this should be an eye opener. We call on any Hindu who is upset and outraged to join us.”

Dalit American activist and Equality Labs executive director Thenmozhi Soundararajan took to Twitter after The New York Times story broke. “A grave case of #caste discrimination in a Hindu temple in NJ. The #BAPS sect used religious visas to hire #dalits  for $1 an hour for backbreaking labor. Power to the workers and Swati Sawant for creating a path to justice.”

Similarly, Dalit writer and activist Yashika Dutt praised Sawant’s  leadership. “Kudos to Swati Sawant, the fierce Dalit immigrant lawyer, who organized legal teams & highlighted this case. Caste discrimination and exploitation of labor are inherently linked  And a poor understanding of caste in the US leaves more Dalit workers vulnerable to exploitation.

The New Jersey temple is meant to be the crown jewel in BAPS’s growing number of American places of worship. Built on a162-acre complex, the Robbinsville temple which opened in 2014, it is still under construction. When completed it will be one of the largest temple commands in the world.

Along with the temples, BAPS is involved in community and charity work. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., the organization donated food and masks to hospitals across the country. Currently, as India is grappling with a devastating second surge of the coronavirus outbreak, BAPS Charities, through its network of partner  hospitals in India and newly created temporary medical  facilities, is working to accommodate the surge of patients  unable to receive medical care by providing ventilators, oxygen supplies, concentrators, medicines,  medical therapies, and other diagnostic services. They are also providing PPE and other necessary supplies to healthcare providers and  those  displaced  by  the  pandemic. In  addition to the  physical  support,  volunteers  are supporting the silent victims of the pandemic, the families of the afflicted, by providing hot meals and more importantly comfort and emotional support. Roughly 30 oxygen concentrators have been delivered to India from the U.S., and BAPS Charities is in the process of sending 150 more. 

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