Indian Workers Allege Human Trafficking, Wage & Hour Violations by Hindu Temple
A group of Indian foreign nationals recently sued a Hindu temple in New Jersey where they worked—and individual supervisors at the temple—claiming that the organization enticed more than 200 Indians to come as religious “volunteers” on R-1 visas to the U.S., where they were forced into labor and held against their will, in violation of wage and hour laws and the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. R-1 visas are available to foreign nationals who come to the U.S. as ministers or other religious occupations, but the workers claim that instead of religious labor, they performed grueling manual tasks, including cutting and laying stones weighing several tons, dipping stones in chemicals, removing garbage, and road work. In addition to the civil lawsuit, federal authorities are investigating and may file criminal charges.
The civil lawsuit claims that the workers were lured to the U.S. with promises of standard work hours and adequate time off, but after arriving in New Jersey, the organization confiscated their passports, forced them to live in trailers, prohibited them from talking to outsiders, and subjected them to harsh work conditions including twelve-and-a-half hour workdays, seven days a week. The workers claim that after deductions were taken—including various deductions they claim were illegal—workers earned only $1.20 per hour. The workers allege that their pay was docked for briefly idling, smoking, speaking to outsiders, leaving temple premises, and disobeying temple rules.
The plaintiffs further claim that as Dalits—the lowest level in India’s caste system—they had little opportunity in India and so were especially vulnerable to exploitation. In a similar California case, an Indian engineer who is a Dalit claims that he was discriminated against by higher-caste colleagues. Further, there have been recent calls for the EEOC to formally recognize caste discrimination as illegal under federal law.
Although the allegations in this case are extreme, they are a good reminder for employers to review their practices and ensure they comply with federal, state, and local wage and hour laws—including the classification of workers as independent contractors or employees, the use of unpaid volunteers, and deductions from wages for meals, breaks, and other reasons.
Moreover, employers should be sure to address all complaints of bullying, harassment, and discrimination, regardless of whether they involve members of the same sex/gender or ethnic/national origin/religious background. As this case and others show—including cases involving same-sex sexual harassment—employers can minimize the risk of discrimination and harassment claims, charges, and lawsuits by proactively addressing these issues.