A Hindu temple in US accused of enticing Indian artisans into bonded labour

The BAPS temple in New Jersey faces charges of forced labour, denial of overtime and insurance, fraud in foreign labour contracting and confiscation of immigration documents

A Hindu temple in US accused of enticing Indian artisans into bonded labour

Shalini Sahay

Back in India they were told they would receive higher wages for fewer hours of work in the United States. The 200 and odd stone carvers from mainly Rajasthan were told of five-day week and four to seven hours of work in New Jersey. They were tutored to tell the US Embassy staff that they were volunteers and were offering their services voluntarily to the deity. The US granted them R-1 Visa, given to religious missionaries, and they were then flown to the land of opportunities.

But it took no time for the harsh reality to jolt them back on earth. Their passports were taken away; they were forced to live in cramped trailers under constant surveillance. They were not allowed to speak to outsiders and were not allowed to go out unescorted. A siren at 6.30 am would summon them to work and they would continue working till 7.30 pm.

While minimum wages in New Jersey was $10 per hour in 2019 and $11 in 2020, these Indian workers were paid $1.20 hour, claims a law suit filed last week in a federal court. In fact, they were not paid even this meagre amount. Instead, they were paid $50 a month or approximately Rs 3,600 while the remaining $400 or approximately Rs 29,000 were paid in Rupees into their accounts in India. The wages as per the US law would have been ten times higher.

Forced to work 90 hours a week, with no off or leave, the 200 and odd workers lived in a fenced and guarded compound away from the temple complex. They were also fined for speaking to outsiders, for idling and for smoking. One Mukesh Kumar was apparently fined 26% of his monthly wages after he was spotted without a helmet.

The workers in their complaint claimed that they were forced to do manual work, had to lift heavy stone slabs, handle dangerous chemicals and had to deal with dust. But they were neither paid any overtime nor had any insurance.


A Hindu temple in US accused of enticing Indian artisans into bonded labour

“These individuals have suffered greatly,” Swati Sawant, an attorney for former workers at the temple, was quoted as saying by NJ.com. “They suffered 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 to stay within the temple compound for months, and for many, years,” she declared.

“What is ironic here is that those who are forbidden to enter into Hindu Temples in India for reasons of alleged impurity were brought into the U.S. with religious visa to build a temple,” said Ben Chinnappan, president and executive director of Dalit Solidarity, a U.S.-based organization advocating for Dalit rights.

Responding to the claim by temple authorities that the allegations had come as a shock to them, Priyanka Jain, a spokeswoman for PGMSS, a labor union representing more than 3,000 stone carvers in Rajasthan, wondered, “If they did not know what is happening inside the biggest projects of theirs, then who does?”

Jain accused BAPS of recruiting workers who had no knowledge of English and who the organization believed “won’t give them trouble and do the work they ask without putting up any fight.”

Dr. Suraj Yengde, a Dalit and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, has been quoted as saying, “An analogy for America is White people getting Black slaves to come and work,” he said.

Ashim Roy, a senior trade union member and advisor, said some of the workers who worked in New Jersey alleged they had experienced similar conditions at temples they have been sent to work elsewhere in the United States as well as other countries.


Five workers at the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) temple identified as Mukesh Kumar, Keshav Kumar, Devi Lal, Niranjan, Pappu and Brajendra have filed the 42-page complaint on behalf of all 200 workers.

The complaint says one of the workers "Mohan Lal” died without adequate treatment and workers who demanded that the man's final rites be conducted according to their tradition and that their working conditions be improved, were punished. Some were sent back to India.

They allege that a swami "called the workers 'worms,' thus exacerbating the psychological coercion the workers experienced."

While applying for visas they were allegedly told the embassy staff that they would be doing decorative painting or carving work known as nakkashi on stones for the temple. But because the nakkashi work was done mostly in India, they allege that they ended up "cutting stones, laying stones, removing garbage, road work, dipping stones in chemicals, and other tasks."

There has been another high-profile case of "forced" labour of Indian men in the US. In that case involving an American company, a federal court in 2015 ordered it to pay five of them $12 million. Most of them were from Kerala.

Signal International had recruited about 500 Indian men to repair oil rigs and facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in Mississippi, reportedly with promises of green cards after they had paid $10,000 to recruiters.

But when they arrived in the US they found they were not going to get green cards and were made to pay $1,050 per month to live in restrictive labour camps.

With 11 more cases pending against the company, it declared bankruptcy and settled all the cases for $20 million. (With inputs from IANS)

Baffles reason

The temple is a dazzling piece of architecture built with Italian marble that was hand-carved in India and then hand-delivered to the Garden State. A team configured the mandir — made up of 13,000 stones — like a jigsaw puzzle. It reportedly took three years, countless volunteer hours and $18 million to complete.

Each of the stones traveled 21,500 miles from Europe to India and then to America, according to the temple website. The 135-ft wide mandap with delicate engravings on pillars stands 55 feet tall. The main gate of the mandap, called Mayur Dwar, is meticulously adorned with 236 sculptures including peacocks, elephants, monks and devotees carved out of marble.

After making such stupendous effort and spending colossal sums of money, the question remains, why the temple authorities ill-treated the workers, as the complaint by five of the workers alleged. Temple authorities have refused to respond to the US media except saying that the allegations were not correct and that they would reply in court.

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