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Hindu temple in New Jersey accused of 'shocking violations' in forced-labor lawsuit

The lawsuit accuses the massive temple of forcing Indian men to work nearly 90 hours a week for around $1 an hour.
People stand near the entrance to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville Township, N.J., on May 11, 2021.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville Township, N.J., on Tuesday.Seth Wenig / AP

The FBI was at a massive Hindu temple in New Jersey on Tuesday that has been accused in a lawsuit of luring Indian men from marginalized communities to the U.S. and forcing them to work nearly 90 hours a week for around $1 an hour.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court, accuses Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, a Hindu sect known as BAPS, and its leaders of "shocking violations," including forced labor, trafficking and wage theft.

"It was just an extremely traumatic and isolating experience," said Patricia Kakalec, an attorney representing the workers. "I've represented migrant farmworkers, I've done low-wage worker cases, and this is really quite shocking."

The FBI said in a statement that it was at the temple "on court-authorized law enforcement activity" and that it had no further comment. The Homeland Security Investigations division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment.

The lawsuit, filed by six named workers in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, says at least 200 Indian nationals who work or have worked at the temple in Robbinsville would be part of the class.

The organization, related entities and several people are accused of recruiting the men to come to New Jersey and help build the temple for around 87 hours a week for $450 a month, or around $1.20 an hour. The suit says the defendants lured low-caste men and members of other marginalized communities to work at the temple, which is still under construction.

Passports were confiscated, and workers were confined to the guarded compound, the suit alleges. Kakalec said that the situation was a "labor trafficking" case" and that the workers were "constantly monitored" with dozens of cameras and threatened with fines for breaking rules.

The workers have been falsely brought to the U.S. on visas for religious workers and volunteers since May 2011, the lawsuit claims. It says such R-1 visas are religious visas available to "those who minister or work in religious vocations or occupations" and are members of the religious denomination sponsoring the visa holders.

The lawsuit seeks unpaid wages for the workers and money for damages.

In a statement to NBC News on Tuesday evening, Matthew Frankel, a spokesperson for BAPS in New Jersey said, "We were first made aware of the accusations early this morning, we are taking them very seriously and are thoroughly reviewing the issues raised."

Kanu Patel, the chief executive of BAPS, who is named as a defendant, told The New York Times, "I respectfully disagree with the wage claim." He told the newspaper that he was not in charge of day-to-day operations at the site.

Lenin Joshi, a spokesman for BAPS, told the newspaper, "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."