Federal agents probe Hindu sect for using forced labor to build New Jersey temple

Federal agents probe Hindu sect for using forced labor to build New Jersey temple

Federal agents on Tuesday visited a Hindu temple in New Jersey after workers alleged they were lured to work there and confined to the premise, forced to perform work for the equivalent of about $1 an hour.

The New York Times reports that lawyers representing the workers on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in which they accuse the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha Hindu sect known as BAPS of exploiting hundreds of low-caste men in the construction project. The Times notes that most of the workers are Dalits, who belong to India's lowest caste.

“The FBI is there on court authorized law enforcement activity. No further comment," FBI spokeswoman Doreen Holder told local station New Jersey 101.5 in a statement.

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The laborers lived in trailers hidden from view. They were brought to the U.S. through religious R-1 visas and made to appear as though they were volunteers, the lawsuit claims. The workers believed they would be given standard jobs with plenty of time off.

Instead, the workers were made to perform manual labor for up to 13 hours a day operating heavy machinery, digging ditches and shoveling snow. They were paid roughly $450 a month.

Their passports were confiscated and they were confined to fenced-in areas, according to the lawsuit, and they were forbidden from speaking with visitors.

“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,” New Jersey immigration lawyer Swati Sawant told the Times.

One of the laborers died last fall, the Times reports. One of the other workers who has since returned to India, Mukesh Kumar, told the newspaper that this death is what prompted him to come forward.

“We said, ‘We don’t want to die like that,' ” Kumar said.

BAPS has close ties to India's ruling party and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Times notes.

Kanu Patel, the chief executive of BAPS, told the Times, "I respectfully disagree with the wage claim."

Spokesperson for BAPS Lenin Joshi also shot back at the claims, telling the Times that the men performed complicated work putting together specially-carved stones from India.

“They have to be fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. In that process, we need specialized artisans,” Joshi said. "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."