Six Indian men filed suit against a large Hindu temple in New Jersey on Tuesday, alleging that the prominent sect in charge of the facility lured them halfway around the world with promises of well-paying jobs, only to confine them to the premises to work 80-hour weeks of manual labor.
The suit was filed the same day that FBI agents were reported on the grounds of the temple, the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, New Jersey.
Doreen Holder, a spokesperson with the FBI’s Newark field office, confirmed the agents’ presence to CNN on Tuesday evening, saying only that the FBI was on scene “on court-authorized law enforcement activity.”
In addition to the named plaintiffs, the suit – which was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey – seeks recognition as a class with some 200 other Indian nationals who have worked at the temple.
The suit alleges the sect and leadership of the New Jersey temple willfully misled Indian nationals of the so-called scheduled caste or Dalits – considered “untouchables” – promising them good construction and stoneworking jobs in America.
“Defendants essentially weaponized India’s caste system,” the suit alleges, “using it to coerce the Plaintiffs and other (religious visa) workers to work for substandard pay under abysmal conditions in New Jersey.”
Though the workers came to the United States on religious visas, the suit alleges they were brought over to do manual labor. When the men arrived in the United States, the plaintiffs allege, the temple took their passports away and subjected them to grueling hours – typically more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week, according to the suit.
The plaintiffs claim they were kept in a guarded compound at the temple and were not allowed to come or go freely. The suit says the men were paid about $450 per month, all but $50 of which was deposited to bank accounts in India where the men could not immediately access it.
“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,” Daniel Werner, an attorney for the men, said in a statement. “These workers were coerced through lies to come to the United States to work and then suffered tremendously – they were basically forced into servitude.”
Leadership at the temple did not immediately respond to CNN’s requests for comment, but on Wednesday, a spokesperson for BAPS offered a statement to CNN.
“We were first made aware of the accusations this morning, we are taking them very seriously and are thoroughly reviewing the issues raised,” Matthew Frankel said.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that a spokesperson for BAPS disputed the allegations.
“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,” Lenin Joshi told the Times.
The Times also reported that Kanu Patel, the chief executive at BAPS and a named defendant in the suit, told the paper he disputed the suit’s wage allegations and that he was not in charge of day-to-day operations at the site.