Indian priests say they have been exploited by employer

Harpreet Singh and Jaswinder Singh. - Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

Two Indian priests say they have been exploited since coming to work in New Zealand, earning just $2000 and $1000 respectively for six months' work.

Harpreet Singh and Jaswinder Singh came to work as the head priest and religious singers at Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, a Sikh temple in Papatoetoe, South Auckland in 2017.

They said they worked long hours and had no holidays, and have taken a claim to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA).

The two men spoke through their rights advocate and interpreter, also called Harpreet Singh, who said that they worked about 10 hours in a typical day.

They normally woke up at 4am to get ready for prayers which started half an hour later, they said.

During the day, they distributed the blessed food parshad to worshippers, tidied up the premises and taught children before leading evening prayers.

Their contract said their employer would pay them $1000 a month on top of providing them with accommodation, meals and transport expenses.

But for half a year's work, Mr Harpreet only received $2000 while Mr Jaswinder was paid $1000 in cash, they said through the advocate.

"We're very unhappy about it that we are being paid less by our employer. We believe that it's even illegal as per the New Zealand laws," Mr Harpreet said.

Mr Harpreet and Mr Jaswinder say they shared a small room with a leaking roof in the temple.

They said they were sleeping on mattresses and stuck newspapers on the curtainless windows, and their food was largely donated by devotees - these should have a value of $280 per week for each of them according to their contract.

Mr Jaswinder said he got a leg infection after sleeping on the damp mattress.

"We did not expect we'll be living in such pitiable conditions. We had very high dreams and all our dreams were destroyed in front of our eyes. We're very disappointed," he said.

However, the temple's convenor Harnek Singh said they treated Mr Harpreet and Mr Jaswinder with good faith and denied their allegations.

He said the two priests barely worked five hours per day and only taught children on Saturdays.

They were not asked to maintain the premises but just clean up after themselves - and he denied their room leaked.

Mr Harnek said the priests asked him to delay part of their wage payments until they had left the country.

He added his Sikh temple was more radical than the majority of the Sikh community in New Zealand, and believed this case was part of a bigger plot hatched against him.

"They're just making allegations and we'll explain to the ERA," Mr Harnek said, regarding the upcoming meeting at the ERA in July after two unsuccessful mediation sessions.

Employment law advocate May Moncur is acting on behalf of the two men and has come across similar cases involving the Sikh community.

"It's very difficult for them to speak out. A lot of them just stayed quiet," Ms Moncur said.

"I think maybe the government and the authorities need to look at the matter to make sure the law can be upheld in a more effective manner to encourage the workers to exercise their rights."

Labour Inspectorate national manager Stu Lumsden said they were currently investigating Sri Guru Singh Sabha for possible breaches of minimum employment standards.

Rajinder Singh, secretary of community group the Supreme Sikh Society of New Zealand, said pastors were traditionally not regarded as employees but now reputable organisations try to meet employment obligations.

"A fair work environment needs to be established," Mr Rajinder said.

The two men's advocate Harpreet Singh, who's the founder of Sikh Awareness, said they were aware of a few Sikh temples not paying their religious workers properly.

"We're trying our best to make sure that this doesn't happen in the future by highlighting those cases, so the employer think twice before they're trying to take advantage of the religious workers who are not aware of their rights."

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