Men lured from India for grueling work at NJ temple for slave wages, lawsuit says
ROBBINSVIILE — Federal agents went to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Tuesday morning hours before a class action lawsuit was filed in federal court on behalf of nearly 200 Indian nationals who say they were paid $1.20 an hour for construction work.
FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents showed up at the temple on Main Street in Robbinsville off Route 130 before 8 a.m. The FBI told New Jersey 101.5 they were there for "court authorized law enforcement activity."
The New York Times was first to report the visit was connected to the lawsuit filed Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court in New Jersey. According to the complaint, the workers were brought to the United States between 2018 and 2020 under false pretenses, their passports confiscated and forced to live in trailers inside a fenced, guarded compound. They could not leave the grounds on their own and were constantly threatened with arrest.
The complaint said the workers were brought to the United States on R-1, or religious visas, which are intended for ministering not manual labor.
The workers in the complaint said they were forced to work 12-13 hours a day performing "arduous and sometimes dangerous work" for approximately 31,000 – 35,000 rupees (approximately $425 – $450) per month, or less than $1.20 per hour. They were told they would be carving "nikashi" on stones to be used in the temple but found most of it was already done in India and shipped to Robbinsville, the lawsuit says.
Instead the workers cut and laid stone, removed garbage, road work and dipped stone in chemicals and other tasks.
"This is a horrific case of worker exploitation and it is even more disturbing that it has gone on for years in New Jersey behind the temple’s walls," said attorney Daniel Werner who is one of the lawyers representing the workers. "These workers were coerced through lies to come to the United States to work and then suffered tremendously – they were basically forced into servitude."
According to the temple's website, the house of worship has been open since 2014 and and the project was n a fifth phase called the Swaminarayan Akshardham Mahamandir, which is expected to be completed within the next 5-7 years.
Township spokesman John Nalbone told New Jersey 101.5 that the municipality was not aware that federal agents were going to be at the temple until their arrival.
The Township was aware of temporary housing on the site and conducted inspections of that housing in April and June of 2020, until in-person inspections were suspended due to COVID-19."
"The Township’s jurisdiction over the property is limited to land use and Uniform Construction Code (UCC) matters. At no time in approving BAPS’s land use applications, or in conducting UCC inspections on the property, did Robbinsville Township officials witness, or become aware of any labor issues that may have been present," Nalbone said.
BAPS spokesman Lenin Joshi told New Jersey 101.5 the organization, based in Piscataway, is aware of the presence of the agents in Robbinsville.
"We are still learning of this investigation and the circumstances surrounding it. 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," Joshi said.