Frequently Asked Questions about the exploitation of Dalit Workers at the BAPS Temple in Robbinsville, NJ
- What is BAPS?
- What are the charges brought against the BAPS organization?
- What were the conditions of work at the BAPS temple in Robbinsville, NJ?
- What is the role of caste in the exploitation of workers at the BAPS Robbinsville temple?
- Isn’t temple sculpture a celebrated form of high art? If there was casteism, wouldn’t this work belong to the privileged castes?
- You say Dalits aren’t allowed into temples, but if they are allowed to build them, isn’t this proof that casteism doesn’t exist?
- What is the status of the laborers at this time and what are the next steps in this case?
- What about the BAPS organization’s claim that it was the construction contractor that’s to blame for the treatment of the workers?
- Will the workers get justice?
- How can I help?
1. What is BAPS?
BAPS refers to the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan, a conservative, wealthy, and influential Hindu sect from the state of Gujarat, India. BAPS’s global reach includes 3850 temples and cultural centers located all over the world, including about 95 temples in the United States.
BAPS temples are known for their grand scale and the architectural spectacle they offer. They are built in a traditional style with intricate carvings and detailed figurative work in stone and marble. The BAPS temple in Los Angeles that was built in 2012, for example, was publicized for its 21-acre campus, the 10 shiploads of carved pink stone from India & marble from Italy that it was built with, and its $100 million dollar price tag. The BAPS temple in Abu Dhabi is reportedly being built without the use of steel and iron as per ancient principles of Hindu temple design. What is less advertised however is the fact that such classical design and look are achieved through the painstaking handiwork of untold numbers of stone carvers, stonemasons, temple sculptors, and other workers, laboring in India as well as on BAPS temple sites worldwide.
2. What are the charges brought against the BAPS organization?
At least three federal agencies- the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Labor are reported to be involved in the investigation of the BAPS temple in Robbinsville, NJ. The charges include multiple violations of immigration and labor laws.
A. Violations of Immigration Law:
Several workers were brought on R-1 visas which are meant for members of the same religious denomination as the sponsors of the visa, religious workers such as ministers/ priests or those practicing a religious vocation or occupation. However:
- Almost none of the workers were members of the BAPS religious community, in direct breach of a condition of the R-1 visa.
- BAPS claimed to US immigration authorities that the workers were “volunteers” while in reality they were paid workers, assigned solely to hard manual labor involving masonry and stonework, operating heavy machinery, etc. for the construction of the temple.
- BAPS agents coached the workers to claim during visa interviews with US authorities that they were decorative painters or skilled carvers while in actuality their work in Robbinsville consisted of hard manual labor for the construction of the temple including digging ditches, building roads & storm drains, etc.
B. Violations of Labor Law:
- The workers were paid hourly wages of about $1.20 in clear violation of both state and federal minimum wage regulations. (The minimum hourly wage in the state of New Jersey is $12, while the hourly mean wage in New Jersey for stone masons is $26)
- The meager pay was further reduced through illegal deductions such as fines for talking to visitors to the temple, and other minor infractions.
- The workers labored for about 87 hours a week, seven days a week, in contravention of fundamental worker protection laws in the US.
3. What were the conditions of work at the BAPS temple in Robbinsville, NJ?
In addition to wage theft, the other conditions of work, as described in the lawsuit, include the following:
- The workers’ passports were confiscated immediately on arrival at the JFK airport and were not returned to them during the workers’ entire stay in NJ which prevented them from leaving if and when they wished to do so.
- The workers were confined to the temple construction site, a fenced-in space monitored by about 50 cameras and by security guards in BAPS uniforms. The workers were not allowed to leave the compound unless accompanied by overseers related to BAPS.
- The workers lived on site in trailers (that were out of sight of visitors to the temple), and they were forbidden from talking to visitors and religious volunteers. Breaking this rule resulted in their pay being deducted, threats of dismissal from work and/or being deported back to India. This rule isolated the workers from the community and precluded any possibility of receiving social support or legal assistance.
- The conditions of work at the BAPS Robbinsville temple were substantially different from those promised to the workers when they were recruited in India, including specifics about the length of the working day, the number of days off they’d get, etc.
- Only $50 of the monthly salary of $450 was given in cash to the workers; the rest was deposited directly in the workers’ Indian accounts. This also meant that the workers did not have the financial means to leave the temple compound or the US, should they wish to do so.
Many of the above conditions of work amount to forced labor and labor trafficking as per US labor standards. The workers’ lawsuit lists various other willful and intentional violations of state and federal labor standards and laws, including the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and hourly wage laws.
Kudos go to Swati Sawant, a Dalit immigration lawyer who organized the workers and secured legal representation for them. Earlier in 2017, Ms. Sawant, who is also a civil rights advocate, represented a Dalit Nepali waiter from the Manhattan restaurant ‘Sahib’ who alleged that he was humiliated by the restaurant’s managers and staff who belonged to privileged castes.
4. What is the role of caste in the exploitation of workers at the BAPS Robbinsville temple?
- Many of the workers at the BAPS temple were from the Dalit community, which is one of the most oppressed groups in the Hindu caste hierarchy. Dalit workers are often the most vulnerable to exploitation given that they are also often some of the poorest workers in India. Equally importantly, their caste identity means that they have the least amount of social and political capital, and often have no recourse against exploitation at the workplace. This lack of social and political support experienced by Dalit workers in Robbinsville was compounded by their location in the US where they were separated from the traditional networks of support that they’d have had access to in India. One such source of support would be the Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh (PGMSS) a labor union that fights for the rights of Dalit & Adivasi (indigenous) stone carvers in the global temple-building industry.
- The relationship between the nature of the labor in the BAPS case (that of temple construction) and the caste identity of the workers has deep political significance. Dalits are forbidden from entering Hindu temples in India, despite the fact that their labor is an integral part of the construction of temples. Specifically, tasks involving manual labor such as the lifting, cutting, and polishing of stones, carving of stones (that can lead to medical conditions such as silicosis in the absence of appropriate gear), etc. are often relegated to Dalit and other caste-oppressed workers, a division of labor that was on full display at the Robbinsville temple.
- The exclusion of Dalit people from Hindu temples has been the subject of political organizing for over a century and has led to laws that forbid such exclusion. However, in practice, the exclusion continues to date in several parts of India, and the violation of such norms often leads to punitive physical violence. The Swaminarayan sect in India once filed a case against Dalit entry of its temples- this is certainly in continuity with the sheer hypocrisy of the BAPS organization’s use of Dalit labor to build its temples while simultaneously denying them the most basic human rights and labor protections.
- The strict prohibition issued by BAPS to the workers against speaking to visitors to the temple also appears to be rooted in casteism. Given the casteist regime of purity and pollution that governs Hindu religious spaces, the BAPS authorities did not probably wish to risk caste-privileged visitors to the temple speaking to the workers and learning that so many Dalit workers lived and worked on the premises of the Robbinsville temple.
5. Isn’t temple sculpture a celebrated form of high art? If there was casteism, wouldn’t this work belong to the privileged castes?
Indeed, until a few decades ago, stonework at temples was reserved for Sompura Brahmins, a caste of temple-architects. Stonework used to be done with a hammer and chisel then, and it was considered an artisanal and a highly skilled form of work. The recent boom in temple-building, and the demand for bigger, grander temples & quick turnaround times have led to mechanization in the industry. The drilling, cutting, and grinding of stones with machines has made stonework a dusty, dirty, hazardous, and sometimes even a deadly occupation. (Fine silica dust produced by the machines results in Silicosis, a frequently fatal disease that is a result of deposition of fine respirable dust in the lungs of workers).
The risk of Silicosis has transformed the division of labor in the industry such that stonework has now become a low-paid, daily wage job relegated to Dalit and Adivasi workers. Today, the state of Rajasthan, a major hub of the temple-building industry, is a hot spot for Silicosis, and workers are protesting the dangerous working conditions, such as the fact that the machines have no safety features and the workers aren’t provided with safety equipment.
Meanwhile, the Sompura Brahmins have repositioned themselves as designers of temples and continue to extract monetary value from this highly lucrative (for them) business. They leverage their brahminical authority to secure their position as custodians of temple designs, and as intermediaries between the temple builders and Dalit & Adivasi workers in the factories, charging both parties about 5-10% each for their own very abstract labor of being Brahmins.
Note: If you are interested in learning more about the caste architecture of the temple-building industry, do read this post by Jibitesh Sahoo and Priyanka Jain on the blog Migrantscape which is the source of much of the info. discussed above.
6. You say Dalits aren’t allowed into temples, but if they are allowed to build them, isn’t this proof that casteism doesn’t exist?
The employment of Dalit and other caste-oppressed workers in stonework and other forms of manual labor for temple-building has unfortunately not improved their chances of entering temples for purposes of worship. Hindu religious authorities have (conveniently!) evolved various symbolic rituals of purification and sanctification that are used to “cleanse” temples of the presence of Dalit workers after the construction is complete. Once the temple is consecrated (through a Kumbhabishegam, or a Hindu ritual of consecration) Dalits aren’t allowed on the premises because by then, all the labor required from their bodies has been extracted and they are no longer needed. In other words, far from denoting a breakdown of casteism, the employment of Dalit workers in temple-building only signifies employers’ recognition that they are some of the cheapest and most expendable labor available.
Historically, Hindu temples have holes in the outer wall/ periphery through which members of Dalit communities can catch a glimpse of the temple. Indian folklore contains myriad examples of figures that suffer forms of violence, including death, for violating caste boundaries by seeking to enter temples(such as the story of Nandanar, a Dalit saint who is allowed to enter a temple only after ritual purification by walking through fire, or essentially sacrificing his life). Tragically, the news cycle continues to offer evidence, from the 21st century, of multiple examples of this form of discrimination. Dalits are humiliated and abused with casteist slurs, fined large amounts of money, threatened with physical violence, economic and/or social boycott(s), specifically for seeking to enter temples. Even the most basic of searches on the internet about caste will produce millions of points of data from accredited sources about the continuing reality of casteism – we dare you to try it!
7. What is the status of the laborers at this time and what are the next steps in this case?
- Following the FBI raid, 90 laborers were removed from the premises of the temple and are now under the protection of the FBI. The temple has since been closed until further notice.
- The workers have filed a class action lawsuit in the federal district court of New Jersey.
- Various labor unions and organizations devoted to labor justice are working in solidarity with the workers in NJ and have issued solidarity statements:
- The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers and its Administrative District Council of New Jersey(BAC), the union representing stone masons and carvers in the U.S., and the Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh(PGMSS), a labor union representing more than 3,000 stone carvers in the state of Rajasthan, India, issued a joint statement demanding safe worksites, fair wages, and rights and dignity on the job for these workers and all stonemasons and stone carvers.
- The International Labor Rights Forum has issued a statement calling for labor justice across BAPS’ global supply chain.
- The Building and Woodworkers’ International(BWI) in its statement called on the Modi administration to cut its ties with BAPS and prosecute it to the full extent of the law.
- A coalition of over 30 social justice organizations from New Jersey have issued a statement asking Hindu organizations and temples to raise their voices publicly in support of all temple workers.
8. What about the BAPS organization’s claim that it was the construction contractor that’s to blame for the treatment of the workers?
The attempts at deflecting blame from the BAPS organization onto the construction contractor, Cunha Construction Inc., are being made solely by right-wing sources like the RSS-affiliated ‘The Organiser’ and by unverified personal Twitter accounts. The news publication ‘The Wire’ quotes Ms. Angela Delli Santi, spokesperson of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, to clarify that the FBI’s raid on the BAPS temple on May 11, 2021 was unrelated to any previous actions against the contractor. Further, not only does the workers’ lawsuit explicitly name eight individuals from the BAPS organization as defendants, it does not name the construction contractor. The lawsuit also provides ample detail and demonstrates clearly that the workers were recruited by individuals affiliated with BAPS temples in India. Lastly, the Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh(PGMSS) a labor union for Dalit & Adivasi stone carvers offers a chronology of the recruitment of workers on its Twitter account and argues “Blaming the #middleman is the oldest trick of the trade. Powerful industries getaway by dumping blame on the smaller fish. So it is important that we say together #BAPSnotmiddleman”.
9. Will the workers get justice?
The BAPS community is known for its political connections and access to a large and global network of wealthy and powerful Gujarati diaspora communities. Given this, some advocates fear that political considerations might influence the investigation resulting in a denial of justice to the workers.
BAPS is known for its close association with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who in turn has publicly declared his close relationship with BAPS and has praised them publicly as well. Modi has claimed a filial relationship with the head of BAPS, Swami Maharaj, and has acknowledged receiving instructions from him about what he should say or not say during his speeches.
Modi’s relationship to BAPS is often on display in the performance of his official duties as Prime Minister, such as in April 2017 when he took the visiting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to the BAPS temple in New Delhi. Further, during his own global travels, such as during an official visit to the UAE in February 2018, Modi inaugurated the BAPS temple project in Abu Dhabi. It is also worth noting that about 27 acres of land for the Abu Dhabi temple project (which is going to be only the second Hindu temple in all of the UAE) was gifted to BAPS by Abu Dhabi’s crown prince Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Closer to home, BAPS representatives were invited by the White House in May 2020 to participate in the commemoration of the National Day of Prayer. BAPS is active on Capitol Hill- on Advocacy Day in 2018, 95 BAPS members met with 93 Congressional offices, following which they joined a celebration of Diwali on the Hill, attended by 26 members of Congress, and the Indian Ambassador to the US. In short, the BAPS organization is well- ensconced in national and international networks of power & patronage and this has led to concerns that they might be shielded from the consequences of their actions.
10. How can I help?
- Please follow Justice for Temple Stone Workers and AKSC (and Twitter or Facebook) for updates on this case
- Publicize this case on social media and amongst your networks to raise awareness about worker exploitation and casteism. Ask members of the BAPS community to join the call to end exploitative conditions of work at their temples.
- Educate yourself about labor and human rights violations in the global temple-building industry. Indeed, events at the Robbinsville temple are not the first instance of exploitation and abuse of temple workers:
- In 2018, workers at the Sri Durka Hindu Temple in Toronto filed a complaint about wages and living and working conditions, including lack of safety gear and withholding of breaks.
- In 2010, a Hindu priest in New York took his employers to court for underpayment of wages (he had been paid $21,000 for 7 years of work) and abusive working conditions, and was awarded $2.3 Million after a jury found his employers guilty of forced labour, involuntary servitude and trafficking violations.
- In 2000, 19 stone masons from Rajasthan who had been brought to the UK to work on a temple in London complained about inhuman living conditions, and low wages that were only about a tenth of the legal minimum wage. After a campaign by the local labor union, and under threat of prosecution, the employers agreed to raise wages and offer back pay.
Do you have other questions or more information about this case? Do share them with us at email@example.com
Note: This FAQ draws from resources such as the lawsuit filed on behalf of the workers by Kakalec Law PLLC, Radford & Keebaugh, LLC, and Jaffe Glenn Law Group, P.A., news reports about the case, and other research.