New Delhi: The right-wing ecosystem has rushed to the defence of Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), the Hindu trust accused of labour and immigration violations in the US, by pushing a false narrative that a construction contractor is responsible for the exploitation of workers, not the trust itself.
BAPS, whose ventures include the Akshardham temples in Delhi and Gujarat, is facing a class-action suit filed in the district court of New Jersey, where expansion and renovation work for a massive temple is underway in rural Robbinsville.
Several Dalit workers allege in the suit that they were taken from India to the US for stonecutting and construction work but were falsely classified as religious workers and volunteers in their visa applications. They arrived in the US on R-1 or religious visas, which are available to those who “minister or who work in a religious vocation or occupation. “But the workers solely performed manual labour,” the suit says.
The allegations against BAPS also include gross underpayment of wages, working in gruelling conditions and being forcefully confined to the temple’s premises. The workers’ passports were confiscated and they were under constant monitoring and faced threats of being fined for infractions, the suit adds. BAPS is accused of violating several US federal and state laws, including the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and wage and hour laws.
As media organisations across the world began reporting the allegations against the trust, the Hindu right wing – such as the RSS-affiliated publication Organiser and several popular Twitter accounts – began claiming that the temple was not responsible for the exploitation of the workers. They cited a press release issued by the New Jersey Department of Labour on April 30 – nearly two weeks before the suit was filed – to claim that the guilty party was a contractor, Cunha Constructions Inc.
The press release says that the Department of Labour issued a stop-work order against the construction company after it inspected two of its worksites, the BAPS temple in Robbinsville and another BAPS temple in the state’s Edison township. A stop-work order, when issued, requires an employer to cease business operations when significant pay, benefits, or other workers’ rights violations are documented.
The press release adds, “These inspections found the contractor was paying workers in cash off the books and did not have workers’ compensation insurance. Other violations involve the misclassification of construction workers by paying them in cash off the books, failure to pay overtime, failure to keep records, hindrance of the investigation, and unpaid or late paid wages.”
The Wire has learnt that the action taken by the New Jersey Department of Labour against the contractor is unrelated to the suit brought against the trust. “The two actions are not connected. NJDOL issued a stop-work order for the violations cited in the press release in April. The lawsuit against the temple, reported by the NY Times is an unrelated, more recent action,” Angela Delli Santi, spokesperson of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, confirmed to The Wire in an email.
Indeed, instead of absolving the trust of the accusations made in the suit, the press release casts a bigger shadow on its attitude towards labour rights for its use of Cunha Construction, which has a history of violating labour laws. The Department of Labour said that the stop-work order was issued based on the company’s “repeated and ongoing violations of state wage and hour laws”.
“The company has eight unpaid judgments for back wages and penalties dating back to 2007 that have not been resolved by way of compliance or restitution to workers. In addition, NJDOL concluded the company was not paying its workers on numerous job sites and was not maintaining proper payroll for any projects across the state,” the press release adds.
The news reports published on May 11, after the suit was filed, also indicated that the two developments were not connected, as Federal Bureau of Investigation agents had visited the temple on “court-authorised law enforcement activity”. The following day, the FBI called for tips or information.
— FBI Newark (@FBINewark) May 12, 2021
In any case, the suit filed by the Indian workers does not list Cunha Constructions among the eight defendants. Besides BAPS, among the defendants are two limited liability companies and four individuals associated with BAPS. In its allegations, the suit makes it explicitly clear that the Indian workers from Dalit and other marginalised communities were recruited either by the defendants or their agents who were “connected with the network of BAPS temples in India”, particularly individuals associated with the central BAPS organisation located in Ahmedabad.