Explainer: The New Jersey Temple Affair, Labor Trafficking, and Caste Exploitation


While the Hindu organization BAPS has refuted the allegations of violating the rights of Dalit workers, temple workers said it was not a unique case.

Last week, a gruesome incident of alleged trafficking of Dalit workers from India to the United States came to light. Following complaints from workers involved in building a temple in New Jersey, FBI agents and other U.S. federal government officials landed in the temple under construction by the Hindu organization BAPS on Tuesday (Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha). The organization has been accused of serious violations of US immigration and labor laws, including forced labor, confiscation of workers’ immigration documents and their payment of meager wages.

The BAPS, which defines itself as “a Hindu socio-spiritual organization with its roots in the Vedas”, is known to be a wealthy and influential sect with close ties to the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. BAPS representatives refuted allegations, right-wing groups and supporters of the BJP tried to deviate BAPS blame an American construction company. To counter this narrative, Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh (PGMSS), a union of temple construction workers, drew attention to the continued exploitation of stone carvers Dalit and Adivasi who were also involved in the temples built by BAPS around the world.

How the New Jersey temple case was discovered

BAPS has built several extravagant temples across the world (US, UK, New Zealand, Australia, Kenya, India), with intricate stone and marble carvings that attract not only cult members and faithful Hindus, but also other tourists. The temple currently in dispute is located in Robbinsville, New Jersey, and was opened by BAPS to the public in 2014. Construction has continued since then, with plans to make it the largest Hindu temple in the United States, according to reports.

At April 30, construction of the temple was halted due to a stop work order issued by the New Jersey Department of Labor, which found several workers’ rights violations at two BAPS temples in Robbinsville and Edison, based worker complaints. The stop work order was issued to Cunha Construction Inc., an American construction contractor. However, the lawsuit, filed by six Dalit workers on behalf of themselves and several other workers, accuses the BAPS of many shocking violations of US labor laws. Swati Sawant, an immigration lawyer in New Jersey, told the New York Times she learned of the issue last year, organized temple workers in secret since then, and organized legal teams to prosecute. actions against BAPS.

The nature of the allegations

The lawsuit was brought by six Dalit workers in Rajasthan – Mukesh Kumar, Keshav Kumar, Devi Laal, Niranjan, Pappu and Brajendra – on their own behalf and nearly 200 other Indian workers, many of whom also belong to the Scheduled Caste communities. According to the lawsuit, it was BAPS, and not the US construction company, that was responsible for recruiting Indian workers interested in stone and construction jobs. The workers were often recruited through agents linked to the BAPS, according to the lawsuit. He said there were also direct recruitments, as in the case of Pappu, who was allegedly recruited by a man named Bharat Bhai, a supervisor of workers at the temple site, who promised better work and better pay in the United States.

Although they were recruited to perform manual labor, they were taken to the United States on religious visas (R-1 visas, intended for members of the religious denomination sponsoring visa holders working in religious vocations.) BAPS staff reportedly told US officials that the workers were religious “volunteers”, and coached the workers before their visa interviews, to tell them they were going to do “volunteer work … that service to the gods ”and that they would not be paid for their work. Upon arrival in the United States, the workers’ passports and visas were reportedly confiscated by BAPS agents and were never returned to them throughout their stay in the United States.

Contrary to what they had been promised, the workers were reportedly only paid $ 450 per month for demanding jobs such as cutting and laying stones, garbage removal, road works, rock dumping. in chemicals, etc. for years, over 87 hours a week. They would have been forced to work even in the rain and snow, with only one day off every 30 to 40 days.

The hourly wage was around $ 1.20, according to the lawsuit, which is far below the minimum wage protection in the United States. One of the workers, Moham Lal, is said to have died while being subjected to forced labor at the temple. Workers also said they were forced to live in crowded caravans in a fence, under constant surveillance by BAPS agents. Supervisors reportedly warned workers against arguing with strangers and told them that the police would arrest them if they left the temple complex because they did not have their passports. Supervisors at the temple site are reportedly fining workers and further reducing their meager wages for breaking minor rules, including talking to strangers. They would also have been required to provide financial guarantees to colleagues traveling to India, to ensure that they return to temple work.

The workers also alleged caste-based verbal abuse, citing an incident where one of the supervisors, Swami Prasanand, called the workers “worms.”

Blame

Kanu Patel, CEO of BAPS, who was also named in the lawsuit, told the New York Times he disagreed with the wage claim filed by the workers. The right has attempted to defend the Hindu organization by blaming the construction company appointed by the New Jersey government in its stop work order. Disputing these claims, Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh (PGMSS) said that in the case of many temple workers who have worked on BAPS temples in various US cities, they only connected with representatives of the BAPS. , and never with the construction company.

“The workers interact with, are ‘disciplined’ by, follow the rules set by the BAPS representatives,” the union said. The group also drew attention to caste hierarchies within the temple building industry in the Rajasthan-Gujarat region.

Following a visit by US federal agents, around 90 workers were kicked out of the site, The New York Times reported. The temple has since been closed until further notice.




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