Skip to main content

Bonded labour in US Swaminarayan temple which used stone carved in Rajasthan

Stone carved from Pindwara, Rajasthan, for US temple
A senior trade union activist based Ahmedabad, Ashim Roy, forwarded an explosive article published in the New York Times, titled “Hindu Sect Is Accused of Using Forced Labor to Build N.J. Temple”, claiming he has been behind the support to the workers who have charged the temple authorities in New Jersey of exploitation.
The workers, who have filed a lawsuit, have charged that they are being forcibly confined in the temple grounds as if they were bonded labourers, and are being paid just about $1 an hour as against the US federal law, which permits a minimum of $7.25 per hour.
Roy phoned up immediately after putting up his tall claim, even as forwarding a photograph showing stone carved from Pindwara in Rajasthan stacked for temple building in New Jersey and links to stories in Indian media quoting the New York Times.
He also forwarded another photograph showing federal agents descending on the massive temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey, in buses and ambulances to take away the workers, “even as a lawsuit charged that low-caste men had been lured from India to work for about $1 an hour.”
Read the New York Times story by Annie Correal published on May 11:
***
Federal law enforcement agents descended on a massive temple in New Jersey on Tuesday after workers accused a prominent Hindu sect of luring them from India, confining them to the temple grounds and paying them the equivalent of about $1 an hour to perform grueling labor in near servitude.
Lawyers for the workers said in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, a Hindu sect known as BAPS that has close ties to India’s ruling party and has built temples around the world, had exploited possibly hundreds of low-caste men in the yearslong construction project.
The workers, who lived in trailers hidden from view, had been promised jobs helping to build the temple in rural Robbinsville, N.J., with standard work hours and ample time off, according to the lawsuit, a wage claim filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey. The majority are Dalit, the lowest rung 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 lay religious workers such as missionaries — and presented to the U.S. government as volunteers, according to the claim. They 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 complaint said.
Lawyers for the men, however, said they did manual labor on the site, working nearly 13 hours a day lifting large stones, operating cranes and other heavy machinery, building roads and storm sewers, digging ditches and shoveling snow, all for the equivalent of about $450 per month. They were paid $50 in cash, with the rest deposited in accounts in India, the complaint said.
“I respectfully disagree with the wage claim,” Kanu Patel, the chief executive of BAPS, told The New York Times, while noting he was not in charge of day-to-day operations at the site.
Lenin Joshi, a spokesman for BAPS, also disputed the accusations, saying 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,” Mr. Joshi said, saying this work qualified the men for the visas.
“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,” Mr. Joshi said.
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, which was said to be connected to the claims of labor and immigration law violations, according to three people familiar with the matter. A spokeswoman for the F.B.I. confirmed agents had been on the temple grounds but would not comment further. Spokesmen for the other two departments declined to comment.
Raid in progress
About 90 workers were removed from the site, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The lawsuit said the men’s passports had been confiscated, and they were confined to the fenced-in and guarded site, where they were forbidden from talking to visitors and religious volunteers. They subsisted on a bland diet of lentils and potatoes, and their pay was docked for minor violations, such as being seen without a helmet, according to the claim.
“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,” said Swati Sawant, an immigration lawyer in New Jersey who is also Dalit and said 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.
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.”
Over the years, the organization has grown into a global enterprise made up of both for-profit and nonprofit entities. It builds temples around the world that draw visitors with awe-inspiring white stone spires, intricate carvings, gurgling fountains and wandering peacocks.
The New Jersey temple, or mandir, is itself a multimillion-dollar operation, public records show. It opened in 2014 but is still under construction as BAPS has tried to fulfill its aim of building the largest Hindu temple in the country. Located near Princeton, the temple draws followers from across the region. With nearly 400,000 Indian-born residents, New Jersey has one of the largest Indian immigrant populations in the country.
The organization has strong ties with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Mr. Modi has said that Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the spiritual head who built BAPS into the largest Hindu sect in the United States before dying in 2016, was his mentor. Mr. Modi gave a eulogy at his funeral and laid the foundation stone for a temple that BAPS is building in Abu Dhabi.
The organization also pledged the equivalent of about $290,000 to Mr. Modi’s most important election promise: building a temple in the city of Ayodhya, where a mosque had stood before Hindu devotees destroyed it in 1992. The destruction of the Babri Mosque set off waves of sectarian violence, and the construction of the temple in Ayodhya is a significant step in the quest by Mr. Modi and his party to shift India from its secular foundations toward a Hindu identity.
Along with its temples, BAPS publicizes its good works. In the pandemic, the group has donated masks to hospitals in Los Angeles and has flown oxygen to India, which has been recently engulfed in a devastating Covid-19 outbreak.
The New Jersey temple is meant to be the crown jewel in BAPS’s growing number of American places of worship.
The temple has previously come to the attention of authorities. In 2017, a 17-year-old boy who was among the groups of religious volunteers who have helped on the construction project died after a fall. His family filed a lawsuit against BAPS, which it settled for an undisclosed amount. Federal workplace safety inspectors determined it had been an accident.
Last month, the New Jersey State Department of Labor and Workforce Development ordered a construction company to stop working on the temple in Robbinsville and another in Edison, N.J., after determining the firm was paying laborers off the books and did not carry workers’ compensation insurance. A spokesman for the department did not respond to a request for comment.
The complaint filed on Tuesday named six men who said they were among more than 200 Indian nationals who were recruited to come to the United States starting about 2018 and were made to work grueling hours under often dangerous conditions on the New Jersey site.
One laborer died from an apparent illness last autumn, prompting a backlash among the workers, according to the complaint and another worker.
Mukesh Kumar, a 37-year-old worker who has since returned to India, contacted Ms. Sawant, the immigration lawyer, who began investigating. Mr. Kumar, who is named in the federal lawsuit, said in an interview with 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, said 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.
The New Jersey case, Mr. Werner said, could be compared to instances of severe worker exploitation seen overseas. “There are parallels in other places. But what’s striking is that this is in the United States,” he said.
---
Karan Deep Singh contributed reporting from New Delhi. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research. Annie Correal writes about immigrant communities in New York City and its environs. She has been a staff reporter at The Times since 2013, reporting breaking news and long form features

Comments

TRENDING

देशव्यापी ग्रामीण भारत बंध में उतरे मध्य प्रदेश के आदिवासी, किया केंद्र सरकार का विरोध

- हरसिंग जमरे, भिखला सोलंकी, रतन अलावे*  15 और 16 फरवरी को निमाड के बड़वानी, खरगोन और बुरहानपुर में जागृत आदिवासी दलित संगठन के नेतृत्व में आदिवासी महिला-पुरुषों ग्रामीण भारत बंद में रैली एवं विरोध प्रदर्शन किया । प्रधान मंत्री द्वारा 2014 में फसलों की लागत का डेढ़ गुना भाव देने का वादा किया गया था, 2016 में किसानों की आय दुगना करने का वादा किया गया था । आज, फसलों का दाम नहीं बढ़ रहा है, लेकिन खेती में खर्च बढ़ता जा रहा है! खाद, बीज और दवाइयों का दाम, तीन-चार गुना बढ़ चुका है! किसानों को लागत का डेढ़ गुना भाव देने के बजाए, खेती को कंपनियों के हवाले करने के लिए 3 काले कृषि कानून लाए गए । 3 काले कानून वापस लेते समय प्रधान मंत्री ने फिर वादा किया था कि फसलों की लागत का डेढ़ गुना भाव की कानूनी गारंटी के लिए कानून बनाएँगे, लेकिन वो भी झूठ निकला! आज जब देश के किसान दिल्ली में आपको अपना वादा याद दिलाने आए है, तब आप उनका रास्ता रोक रहें है, उनके साथ मारपीट कर उन पर आँसू गैस फेंक रहें हैं, उन पर छर्रों से फायरिंग कर रहें है! देश को खिलाने वाला किसान खुद भूखा रहे, क्या यही विकास है?

Only 15% businesses provide employees real-time sustainability dashboards: Study

Kyndryl in collaboration with Microsoft has released the findings of The Global Sustainability Barometer study. The study, conducted by Ecosystm, finds that while 85% of organizations place a high strategic level of importance on achieving their sustainability goals, only 16% have integrated sustainability into their strategies and data. A Kyndryl note: *** Kyndryl (NYSE: KD), the world’s largest IT infrastructure services provider, in collaboration with Microsoft , today released the findings of The Global Sustainability Barometer study. The study, conducted by Ecosystm , finds that while 85% of organizations place a high strategic level of importance on achieving their sustainability goals, only 16% have integrated sustainability into their strategies and data.

Tamil Nadu brahmins are at cross roads, their future scenario remains uncertain

By NS Venkataraman*  For over 70 years now, brahmin community in Tamil Nadu have been abused, insulted and even physically attacked on some occasions by those who claimed that they were part of the so called dravidian movement. However, brahmin community silently and helplessly ducked under pressure and showed no signs of resistance or fight back.

How the slogan Jai Bhim gained momentum as movement of popularity and revolution

By Dr Kapilendra Das*  India is an incomprehensible plural country loaded with diversities of religions, castes, cultures, languages, dialects, tribes, societies, costumes, etc. The Indians have good manners/etiquette (decent social conduct, gesture, courtesy, politeness) that build healthy relationships and take them ahead to life. In many parts of India, in many situations, and on formal occasions, it is common for people of India to express and exchange respect, greetings, and salutation for which we people usually use words and phrases like- Namaskar, Namaste, Pranam, Ram Ram, Jai Ram ji, Jai Sriram, Good morning, shubha sakal, Radhe Radhe, Jai Bajarangabali, Jai Gopal, Jai Jai, Supravat, Good night, Shuvaratri, Jai Bhole, Salaam walekam, Walekam salaam, Radhaswami, Namo Buddhaya, Jai Bhim, Hello, and so on.

नफरती बातें: मुसलमानों में असुरक्षा का भाव बढ़ रहा है, वे अपने मोहल्लों में सिमट रहे हैं

- राम पुनियानी*  भारत पर पिछले 10 सालों से हिन्दू राष्ट्रवादी भारतीय जनता पार्टी (भाजपा) राज कर रही है. भाजपा आरएसएस परिवार की सदस्य है और आरएसएस का लक्ष्य है हिन्दू राष्ट्र का निर्माण. आरएसएस से जुड़ी सैंकड़ों संस्थाएँ हैं. उसके लाखों, बल्कि शायद, करोड़ों स्वयंसेवक हैं. इसके अलावा कई हजार वरिष्ठ कार्यकर्ता हैं जिन्हें प्रचारक कहा जाता है. भाजपा के सत्ता में आने के बाद से आरएसएस दुगनी गति से हिन्दू राष्ट्र के निर्माण के अपने एजेण्डे को पूरा करने में जुट गया है. यदि भाजपा को चुनावों में लगातार सफलता हासिल हो रही है तो उसका कारण है देश में साम्प्रदायिकता और साम्प्रदायिक मुद्दों का बढ़ता बोलबाला. इनमें से कुछ हैं राम मंदिर, गौमांस और गोवध एवं लव जिहाद. 

Birth of New Communist Party ushers in new epoch in Canada's Left history

By Harsh Thakor  On January 31, 2024, history was made with the formation of the (New) Communist Party of Canada (the (N)CPC), the successful completion of its Founding Congress, and the public release of its Political Program. A most sporadic development in turning course of Communist movement locally, and worldwide. It also pits a challenge to dogmatism or mechanical approach and stagnation. taps the revolutionary creativity of the masses and is major re-orientation towards shaping revolutionary class struggles and  the massline.

Ethiopian ruling classes, political masters in West have their hands soaked in blood

By Harsh Thakor  Over two hundred were killed in recent weeks in Ethiopia’s Oromia and Amhara region. After peace-talks between the Oromo Liberation Army and the Ethiopian government did not materialise tensions are escalating in the Oromia region. Earlier, on November 22, least 25 civilians were massacred in a government aerial drone strike, in Chawaka districts of the Buno Bedelle zone. This incident took place only two days after a fierce battle arose between the OLA and governmental troops in the Sulula Fincha district of the Horro Guduru Wollega zone.

Landslide early warning system: Odisha Govt, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham collaborate

By Divya Saini  In a strategic move to mitigate the impact of landslides during storms, the Odisha government in collaboration with Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham is gearing up to establish a user-friendly Landslide Early Warning System (EWS) in Gajapati district. This initiative aims to provide advanced information, especially regarding landslides caused by disturbances in the natural stability of a slope.

Violent incidents in Haldwani: CPDRS on dubious role of Uttarakhand government

By DN Rath  Center for Democratic Rights and Secularism (CPDRS) unequivocally condemns the dubious role of Uttarakhand Government and its administration in the incidents that happened in Haldwani of Nanital district of the state.

A third view of Islamic paradox: Can Muslim unity defeat Zionist evil regime’s injustice?

By Chandra Vikash*  Could India, as a mirror to the ethno-federal One State solution, play a key role in resolving the Palestinian genocide crisis, that has emerged in the global consciousness as a focal point for injustice of centuries-old settler-colonialism project that continues to spread its hydra-headed tentacles through globalisation of this Old World Order?