India’s Ancient Caste System Reaches California

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Apple (AAPL.O) is emerging as a pioneer in measures to free Silicon Valley of a rigid hierarchy that has separated Indians for years. America’s tech giants are getting a modern-day crash course in India’s old caste system.

Discrimination 

Apple, the world’s biggest listed company, updated its general employee conduct policy about two years ago to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of caste, which it added alongside existing categories such as race, religion, gender, age and ancestry.

The inclusion of the new category, which hasn’t been previously reported, goes beyond US discrimination laws, which do not explicitly ban casteism.

The update came after the tech sector – which counts India as its top source of skilled foreign workers – received a wake-up call in June 2020 when California’s employment regulator sued Cisco Systems (CSCO.O) on behalf of a low-caste engineer who accused two higher-caste bosses of blocking his career.

Cisco, which denies wrongdoing, says an internal probe found no evidence of discrimination and that some of the allegations are baseless because caste is not a legally “protected class” in California.

This month an appeals panel rejected the networking company’s bid to push the case to private arbitration, meaning a public court case could come as early as next year.

Since the suit was filed, several activists and employee groups have begun seeking updated US discrimination legislation – and have also called on tech companies to change their own policies to help fill the void and deter casteism.

Comprehensive policies 

Their efforts have produced patchy results, according to a Reuters review of policy across the US industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of workers from India.

“I could imagine that parts of … (an) organization are saying this makes sense, and other parts are saying we don’t think taking a stance makes sense.”

It added that training provided to staff also explicitly mentions caste.

“Our teams assess our policies, training, processes and resources on an ongoing basis to ensure that they are comprehensive,” it said. 

Elsewhere in tech, IBM told Reuters that it added caste, which was already in India-specific policies, to its global discrimination rules after the Cisco lawsuit was filed, though it declined to give a specific date or a rationale.

Reuters reviewed each of the policies, some of which are only published internally to employees.

Casteism outlawed in India

Caste discrimination was outlawed in India over 70 years ago, yet bias persists, according to several studies in recent years, including one that found Dalit people were underrepresented in higher-paying jobs.

Two said they had quit their jobs over what they viewed as casteism.

Some staff groups, including the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) at Google’s parent company, say explicit mention of caste in corporate rules would open the door to companies investing in areas such as data collection and training at the same levels as they do to protect other groups.

“Significant caste discrimination exists in the United States,” said Mayuri Raja, a Google software engineer who is a member of the AWU and advocates for lower-caste colleagues.

Google reiterated to Reuters that caste discrimination fell under national origin, ancestry and ethnic discrimination.

It declined to elaborate further on its policies.

‘Not good for business’

Adding caste to a general code of conduct is not unheard of.

California State University and the state Democratic Party have followed over the past two years.

In May this year, California’s employment regulator, the Civil Rights Department, added caste to its example equal employment opportunity policy for employers.

Yet the move by Apple, a $2.8 trillion behemoth with more than 165,000 full-time employees globally, looms large.

By contrast, many employers are hesitant to go beyond laws with their primary policies, according to three employment attorneys including Koray Bulut, a partner at Goodwin Procter.

Amazon and Dell confirmed they had also begun mentioning caste in anti-bias presentations for at least some new hires outside India.

John-Paul Singh Deol, a lead employment attorney at Dhillon Law Group in San Francisco, said that only including caste in training and guidelines amounted to “giving lip service” to the issue because their legal force is questionable.

“No company wants to have employee turnover, lack of productivity and conflict – that’s just not good for business,” she said.

Apple declined to say whether any complaints had been brought under its caste provision.

“This is an issue that ultimately will be resolved by the courts,” he said.

 

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Source: The Daily Star

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