“A Hindu priest in Toronto has been accused of extreme abuse with the workers alleging that it was bascially “modern slavery”.
Four migrant workers from India told CBC News that they faced harsh living conditions and were drastically underpaid as sculptors on a Hindu temple in Toronto.
By day, they sculpted and painted one of the most holy parts of the temple, by night they would languish in the basement of the building, sleeping on cots by the boiler, according to Sekar Kurusamy, 51, and Suthakar Masilamani, 46.
“We were so hungry. It was unbearable. After being hungry, we would get light-headed,” said Kurusamy, who spoke to CBC through an interpreter.
In addition to lack of food, the workers claim they have not been paid for overtime and the Tamil Workers Network is asking whether there were inadequate safety practices on the job site.
In a statement to CBC Toronto, Sridurka Hindu Temple says the allegations are “false.”
Toronto’s Sridurka Hindu Temple hired the four Tamil men directly from India to execute part of a $1.2-million renovation to the temple’s gopuram — similar to a steeple on a church.
The men said they started work at 8 a.m., without being fed, and no food was made available until two to three hours into the shift.
Kurusamy said when the four Tamil workers pressed the temple’s chief priest for food, he became verbally abusive and threatened them with violence.
“He got mad and told us to get out. He said, ‘get out dog.’ He used offensive words,” Kurusamy said. “My soul hurt. We were crying because we didn’t get sufficient food. We didn’t know what else to do. We didn’t know anyone. This was our first time in the country.”
Masilamani told CBC Toronto he has an ulcer, so regular food is important for his condition.
“We worked there for five months, yet not a single proper meal,” said Masilamani through a translator. “We wouldn’t be able to ask him about the food. We get the leftovers from the day before after the worshippers ate.”
Masilamani and Kurusamy said they worked more than 60 hours a week, without any regular day off, but it was the food and sleeping conditions that were most upsetting.
“Even if I brought up the bed bugs, [the chief priest] would act angry. He made us stressed and sad,” said Masilamani.
“His behaviour is not priest-like. He used a lot of offensive language,” Kurusamy said. “He put his hands up like he was going to hit us.”
Sridurka Hindu Temple refused an interview request with chief priest Rev. Kanaswami Thiagarajahkurukkal, but in a statement said for the past five years temporary workers have been brought to Canada to complete its religious sculpting work.
The temple says “no overtime work was done” and the workers were housed on the premises “for ease of access to the construction site, to reduce the time required for commuting, [provide] access to meals and access to the temple for their spiritual needs.”
“Over the past five years, our religious sculptor workers have never expressed concerns or made any complaints to us regarding the living conditions,” the statement said. “Our employee satisfaction survey in the past years indicates that sculptor workers are satisfied with the wages, working environment and residence facilities.”
“We would like to clarify that no workers were ever verbally attacked, physically shoved or pushed by any of our staff.”
Eventually, a member of the temple’s congregation became aware of the alleged conditions the workers were facing and contacted the Tamil Workers Network.
“If it was 20 years ago, when I was young, I may have just burned the temple down, because of the magnitude … of the story,” said Ram Selvarajah, a volunteer with the Tamil Workers Network. “I’m not even going to the fair wages part of it, it’s just the way the people were treated … it’s slavery in the modern world.””