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.
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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.
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.
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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.