Hindu Sect in the U.S. Faces Lawsuit For “Exploiting” Dalit Workers During Temple Construction
The ongoing construction work at New Jersey’s massive Shri Swaminarayan Temple involves the exploitation of Dalit workers from India, according to a lawsuit filed in the U.S., proving that the oppression of India’s marginalized communities by upper-caste people extends beyond the country’s territorial borders.
The class action suit was filed against the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or BAPS, at a U.S. federal court in New Jersey. The lawsuit, filed by six temple-construction workers on behalf of over 200 others, accuses BAPS of “shocking violations of the most basic laws applicable to workers in this country, including laws prohibiting forced labor.”
Along with the FBI, the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security in the U.S. are also investigating the organization on charges of labor and immigration law violation.
The organization has been accused of luring people belonging to marginalized communities from India and forcing them to work on the construction of the temple — for nearly 90 hours every week, at around $1 an hour. In addition, their passports were reportedly confiscated, and they were confined to their accommodations at the guarded temple site while being constantly monitored through cameras. They were also prohibited from interacting with visitors and religious volunteers and subjected to pay cuts for minor violations, like being seen without helmets. At least two of these workers have died on-site, prompting unrest among fellow workers.
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“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,” Swati Sawant, an immigration lawyer in New Jersey, who is also Dalit, told The New York Times.
According to the lawsuit, since May 2011, the workers were being brought into the U.S. on visas for religious workers and volunteers, which are legally meant for people “who minister or work in religious vocations or occupations.” They were then instructed to lie to the immigration authorities about being skilled carvers or decorative painters — when, in fact, they were engaged in manual labor like lifting large stones, operating heavy machinery, building storm sewers, and digging ditches.
“It was just an extremely traumatic and isolating experience… I’ve represented migrant farm workers, I’ve done low-wage worker cases, and this is really quite shocking,” Patricia Kakalec, one of the lawyers representing the workers, told NBC News.
Meanwhile, BAPS — which 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” on its website and has donated $290,000 towards the Ram Mandir-construction in Ayodhya — has denied the charges.