Investigation as migrants complain about treatment by wealthy temple

Credit: Original article can be found here

A wealthy Auckland Sikh temple demanded money and unpaid labour in return for visas and encouraged migrants to work illegally, multiple Indian migrants have alleged.

The Manurewa Nanaksar gurdwara, boasting assets of over $25 million, has had 328 temporary and residency visas approved since 2006, with another 60 declined.

Immigration New Zealand said the majority of those declines were due to “concerns about a genuine purpose for travel to New Zealand, as well as concerns over the organisation’s compliance with employment and immigration law”.

Immigration New Zealand confirmed it had an active investigation into complaints relating to the temple but said it couldn’t provide details as that might “impact the integrity of the investigation”.

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INZ compliance boss Steve Vaughan said while he couldn’t discuss current investigations, “we take all these allegations seriously and encourage people to come forward with information”.

Temple chairman Ranbir Singh Sandhu said he was co-operating fully with INZ and said the complaints all related to the tenure of former chairman Rajwinder Singh.

Rajwinder Singh declined to comment, and his lawyer, Lester Cordwell, said: “There is no comment with respect to these allegations”.

Stuff has spoken to six of those temple-sponsored applicants, who all alleged senior temple officials had broken immigration law, and all said they had been persuaded to sign blank sheets of paper before coming to New Zealand, and that agreements were later added without their knowledge to those pages.

All six named an Indian temple official, Paramjit Singh Lally, as the man who had asked them to sign the papers, made arrangements at the Indian end and demanded the fees.

Before terminating a phone call, Lally said the allegations were “complete nonsense. Ask them why they are saying this?” He did not respond before deadline to written questions.

Four complainants said they were charged sums of up to $21,000 in return for promises of residence visas which never eventuated.

They said while the temple had brought them in ostensibly to work for the temple trust itself, they instead found work in farming or fruit picking.

Two more complainants say they face a civil case in the Indian courts after the temple claimed they had agreed to work for six months unpaid in the temple’s main gurdwara in Delhi.

Stuff reported in May about an Employment Relations Authority case brought by a former volunteer priest at the temple, Indian national Tarsem Singh, who alleges the temple secured him a false passport, and made him work unpaid as a general handyman, claims the temple deny.

A former temple volunteer, Iqbal Singh, has approached Stuff saying he witnessed Tarsem Singh at work, recalling him painting a ceiling at 10pm one night and doing maintenance work on the temple’s kindergartens and says Tarsem was “sold a false dream” by officials. Ranbir Sandhu said he didn’t know Iqbal and the temple maintained its stance on Tarsem Singh, which was to deny all his claims, pointing to their documented use of professional tradesmen.

Tarsem Singh is awaiting an ERA date, said his advocate May Moncur, while immigration agent Tuariki Delamere is representing him with Immigration NZ and awaiting a decision on whether he will be deported. The tenancy on the temple-owned rental property where he was living with a friend has been terminated, on the grounds it is being sold.

Tarsem Singh is awaiting an INZ decision on his future in New Zealand.

DAVID WHITE/STUFF

Tarsem Singh is awaiting an INZ decision on his future in New Zealand.

Speaking out

Manjinder Singh is now a New Zealand citizen and owns his own tiling business, so he says he is not afraid to speak up, but says that he knows of others who are too afraid to come forward.

In 2002, he came to New Zealand as part of a group of four volunteer priests at the gurdwara, and says he was charged about 400,000 rupees (about $7700 on current exchange rates) for an initial three-month visa.

He was told it would lead to residency, he alleges. He says he later discovered he had actually overstayed both that visa, and a second one, because the temple had been slow in renewing them.

He says he did some work at evening services, but principally worked for cash payments on farms in Pukekohe to survive. The temple also called upon him to do free labouring work. He says he was told to sign a blank piece of paper before departure to New Zealand and understood a contract was subsequently written in.

Darshan Singh came to New Zealand in September 2002, also initially on a three-month work visa which listed the temple trust as his employer. He believed it had been twice extended (INZ say it was not) before he stayed here illegally for another two years. He says the temple held his passport while he worked for cash in Tauranga on kiwifruit farms. He says all three of his group had their passports held despite their requests and he only got it back after it was accidentally sent to INZ by a courier company. He says each man was asked to pay 11 lakhs (about $21,000), although he paid only seven, refusing the final payment.

He says the temple promised him permanent residency within a year, saying the process was his three-month visa would be twice extended before being converted into residency. He too alleges he was asked to sign a blank piece of paper, saying it was senior temple official Paramjit Singh Lally who asked him to do so. Darshan was deported in September 2005 for being “unlawfully in New Zealand”.

Gurdeep Kaur Walia also came to New Zealand with her family – her father, mother and two brothers – in August 2002 on a one-month limited purpose visa she says was organised by the temple around the time of the opening of a new building there.

David White

Tarsem Singh faces deportation after arriving in New Zealand on false documents.

She says the family paid the temple to secure them residency, but she says a few weeks after arriving, officials admitted they were on short term visa with limited prospects of renewal. She said the visas were organised from India by Paramjit Singh Lally, and the family all signed blank pieces of paper before departure.

Gurdeep says she was told she could be educated in New Zealand and go on to college, “when we got here, there was nothing”.

She believed all those arriving at the time were being asked for money: “It is a business”.

She said when they asked officials “how we would manage, they said ‘you guys go work’.” The family duly did, working for cash as fruitpickers until about 2004.

After four months, she says the temple asked them to visit and Immigration turned up and arrested her mother and brother although they were released the next day.

In 2004, her father arranged for her to be married and they applied for a marriage visa, which was declined because she was an overstayer. She says the temple advised that she should return to India, destroy her passport, and they could arrange a new passport under a fresh identity.

Her dad instead arranged a legal marriage in New Zealand and she went to India for the traditional ceremony before returning her as a resident via marriage. One brother married a New Zealander and is living here, but the rest of the family were deported and are back in the Punjab.

She says she thinks INZ filed refugee claims for the family which were all denied. INZ says she left voluntarily in October 2004, before returning in April 2009 on a partnership residence visa. INZ said they could not comment further on the Walia family for “legal and privacy reasons”.

Immigration NZ general manager Steve Vaughan welcomed any other migrants with information to contact INZ.

Ross Giblin/Stuff

Immigration NZ general manager Steve Vaughan welcomed any other migrants with information to contact INZ.

Walia alleged the temple demanded more money from her father, and he had refused as he needed to pay for her forthcoming wedding. After being called in for a meeting at the temple, she says: “they went to meet him and Immigration came”.

All three say the temple routinely held the passports of those they had sponsored, and all say they knew of several raids by Immigration in 2003-2005 to deport overstayers. INZ would not comment on whether any raids occurred.

Gurdeep’s father, Sukhminder Singh Walia, spoke to Stuff from his home in the city of Ahmedgarh, Punjab. He said that he paid Paramjit Singh Lally 20 lakhs – about $38,000 – to secure visas for his entire family and was asked for more once he was here.

Going to court

Meanwhile, two more recent temple workers say they face a civil case brought by the temple – again after being asked to sign blank pieces of paper.

Civil court papers between the temple and a former employee filed in a Delhi court.

supplied/Stuff

Civil court papers between the temple and a former employee filed in a Delhi court.

Rafal Singh and Brahm Pal Singh arrived in New Zealand in January 2018 on Religious Worker Work Visas to work as religious singers at the temple, returning to India in October 2019.

Both say the temple have claimed they owe money and must repay it with unpaid work at their main gurdwara in Delhi.

Court documents seen by Stuff show Paramjit Singh Lally alleges that Rajan owes him $80,000 and Braham Pal owes him $90,000 in personal loans, and attached handwritten single-page contracts setting out the loans and promising to repay them.

Rafal and Braham Pal’s wife, Surjit Kaur, who spoke on his behalf as Braham Pal is suffering from ill-health and depression, say both men signed blank pieces of paper which were later doctored to claim they had agreed to this work as repayment for a fictional debt. Rafal said the agreement was “complete lies”.

Surjit Kaur says the men worked long, unpaid hours at the Delhi temple for six months before departure, and Rafal said he had though the temple would pay for his air ticket and visa fees to come to New Zealand. Instead, he says he was charged 100,000 rupees (about $2000) for them. Surjit said her husband paid about the same.

At the temple, worshippers pay donations into a fund for the temple itself, and can also give donations into a bucket for the priests. But Rafal said the priests shared only 25 per cent of these donations, which worked out to about $400-500 between three of them.

Surjit Kaur said her husband had told her in phone calls from New Zealand he was being paid “a percentage” and later learned it was the 25 per cent between three arrangement.

Through an interpreter, she said the temple “paint a different picture before you come to New Zealand – they say you will earn decent money, because it’s all in dollars, and once you convert the dollars to rupees you will make good money. It is a completely different story once you get here”.

Surjit says he didn’t bring much home: “The amount he earned in New Zealand by working, you could probably earn more by working as a couple in India”.

She says Amar Singh “paints a good picture of this opportunity for the poor in India” but says they live a highly restricted life once they arrive, are underpaid, and if they speak up, are threatened with legal action. “The temple has turned into a business.”

Stuff could not reach Amar Singh, who is understood to split his time between India and Australia, for comment.

Rafal Singh, a father of two, said the debt was a complete lie and said he just wanted the case to go away, and not to happen to anyone else. He and his brother recalled signing a blank page but assumed the temple needed his signature for something else.

Surjit Kaur said her husband had also signed a blank page. They had recently seen the document with his signature on claiming the debt, and said it was dated 2019, when he had left India in 2017 and returned in 2018.

Rafal said he had been visited by police, who had told him to go to Delhi to answer the case but since then there had been lockdowns in India so he had yet to travel.

Trust chairman Ranbir Singh Sandhu said he did not recall either man working at the temple during his time so could not comment on their claims.

The temple trust, formed in 1989, built and own the golden-coloured gurdwara (temple) at 100 Great South Road, in the heart of Manurewa. There are other branches in the UK, US, Canada and Australia.

The trust’s balance sheet shows a healthy financial position. In the 2019-20 financial year, it reported revenues of $935,000, about $420,000 of that in worshippers’ donations, and a surplus of $467,000.

It recorded accumulated funds of $9.7m, and assets worth almost $16m, including the temple itself and seven rental properties, while it also appears to have made outstanding loans of about $4m to the temple’s overseas branches. An associated educational trust runs two kindergartens with 87 children enrolled and $1.6m in assets and about $1m in funds.