A class action suit has been filed in the United States District Court at New Jersey on behalf of more than 200 Indian workers who were allegedly subjected to gross violations of labour law at the behest of a Hindu organisation.
The suit has been filed against Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) for allegedly forcing Indian migrants into forced labour that resulted in the death of one of the workers.
As per the plaint, the workers were recruited from India to come to the United States with “R-1” religious visas to do stonework and other construction work in New Jersey. The workers spent years building and maintaining the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, New Jersey, touted to be the largest Hindu temple in the United States.
Though BAPS claimed that the workers were brought to the US as religious volunteers, the work they were made to perform was manual labour. The workers were made to work 87 hours a week for $450 a month (Rs 28,500 to 31,000 at the time), which was well below state and federal minimum wage. It was claimed 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.
Further, BAPS had confiscated the workers’ passports as soon as they entered the United States and kept the passports during the entirety of the workers’ time in New Jersey to prevent them from leaving.
“Workers were prohibited from speaking with outside visitors to the temple; failure to obey this rule would result in workers’ meager pay being reduced even further, or the workers being sent back to India. Supervisors told the workers that the police would arrest them if they left. One R-1 worker, Moham Lal, died while he was subjected to forced labor at the temple, and the Defendants retaliated against other workers who organized to demand, among other things, that Moham Lal’s Case remains to be treated according to his – not the Defendants’ – religious rituals and that the Defendants improve working conditions,” the suit contended.
Another claim was that BAPS intentionally recruited workers from the Scheduled Caste community and “did what they could to remind these marginalized workers of their place in the social hierarchy.”
It was claimed that the workers were not given the option to receive their salary in the United States at the time it was earned. Instead, monthly payments were made to Indian accounts to which they had no immediate access. Moreover, the workers were fined for what BAPS considered violations of work rules, resulting in deduction of their salaries, which were already below the minimum wage.
Justifying the filing of the class action lawsuit, the plaintiffs stated,
“…it would be difficult for members of the Class to obtain individual redress effectively for the wrongs done to them. If individual actions were to be brought by each member of the Class, the result would be a multiplicity of actions, creating hardships for members of the Class, the Court, and the Defendants…The members of the Class are indigent foreign nationals and workers who lack the means and resources to secure individual legal assistance, have virtually no command of the English language or familiarity with the United States legal system, and are particularly unlikely to be aware of their rights to prosecute these claims.”
Filed by Jaffe Glenn Law Group, the suit stated that the actions of BAPS constitute forced labour, trafficking with respect to forced labour, document servitude, conspiracy, and confiscation of immigration documents with the intent to engage in fraud in foreign labour contracting.
On these grounds, the following reliefs were sought, among others:
- Order declaring that the defendants (BAPS) violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the New Jersey Wage & Hour and Wage Payment laws, and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).
- Order permanently enjoining defendants from further violations of the FLSA, New Jersey Wage & Hour and Wage Payments laws, and the TVPA;
- Judgment to plaintiffs and the other R-1 workers on their TVPA claim and awarding them compensatory and punitive damages;
- Judgment to plaintiffs and other R-1 workers who opt into this action pursuant, and awarding each of them their unpaid wages plus an equal amount in liquidated damages.