As many as 200 Indian workers from marginalised communities were allegedly lured to New Jersey in the US where they were forced to work 12 hours a day at $1.20 (85p) an hour to help build a Hindu temple, a lawsuit has claimed.
The case was filed by five of them in the US District Court in Newark on behalf of more than 200 Indian construction workers. They alleged “shocking violations” of the most basic laws applicable to workers in the US including those prohibiting forced labour.
The lawsuit accuses their employer, Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), and related entities of recruiting them in India and bringing them to the US where they were forced to work for more than 87 hours a week for $450 (£318) a month.
But of the total amount, the workers allegedly only received $50 (£35) in cash per month while the rest was deposited into their accounts in India. The workers alleged that “they were forced to live and work in a fenced, guarded compound which they were not allowed to leave unaccompanied by overseers affiliated with (BAPS).”
However, a spokesman for BAPS, in a statement said: “We were first made aware of the accusations this morning, we are taking them very seriously and are thoroughly reviewing the issues raised."
In New Jersey, the minimum wage is $12 (£8.5) an hour, and the US law requires more payment for those working for more than 40 hours a week.
The lawsuit alleged that the Indian workers were kept under constant watch and were threatened with pay cuts, arrests and return to India if they spoke to outsiders.
On Tuesday, the FBI agents searched the sprawling ornate temple in rural Robbinsville.
Doreen Holder, a spokeswoman for the FBI field office in Newark, said: “We were there on court-authorised law enforcement activity,” while declining to elaborate any further on their mission.
Daniel Werner, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, called it “shocking that this happens in our backyard.”
“It is even more disturbing that it has gone on for years in New Jersey behind the temple’s walls,” he said.
According to the lawsuit, the BAPS entities own the land where the temple was built and arranged for the construction of the temple, which has been open for several years but work is ongoing on its extension.
The workers, many of whom don’t speak or understand English, were falsely classified as religious workers and volunteers when they were brought to the US, the lawsuit said. It said their passports were taken on arrival.
The workers now seek “full value of their services" along with unspecified damages and other compensation.
The workers, who claimed that they worked at the construction site as far back as 2012, said in India they belonged to the Scheduled Caste, formerly considered “untouchables.”
Indian American actor Monica Gill tweeted: “Slave labo(u)r in the United States. That’s what these ppl (people) are doing. That’s how deeply the caste system is rooted within them.”
Delhi-based Dilip Mandal, who is the founder of the Centre For Brahmin Studies, said “with Hindus settling abroad, the caste is now becoming a global problem.”
“Wherever the Hindu diaspora go, they take their caste with them, and so, therefore, that discrimination goes with them. Hindus will make America sick,” he tweeted.
Additional reporting by agencies