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Alphabet Workers Union Demand Caste Protections; Support Discrimination Lawsuit Against Cisco

Alphabet Workers Union Demand Caste Protections; Support Discrimination Lawsuit Against Cisco

Bhargavi Kulkarni
  • Equality Labs hails it as an incredible victory in the battle for caste civil rights, calling it “the largest workers statement in the tech sector,” affirming that “the battle against caste apartheid is a workers rights issue.”

Alphabet Workers Union is demanding that caste be included in the company’s anti discrimination policy and be integrated into their equity practices. The employees union of the parent company of Google and several subsidiaries put their demands forward in a statement supporting the lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against Cisco for caste-based discrimination. “This lawsuit marks the first time in U.S. history that any institution is being held accountable for caste-based discrimination,” the union announced in a statement on April 13. “Caste-oppressed workers face many barriers throughout the tech industry, including at Alphabet,” it added. 

In June 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a federal lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, against Cisco Systems, Inc. (Cisco) and two managers for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. 

The lawsuit alleged that managers at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters campus, which employs a predominantly South Asian workforce, harassed, discriminated, and retaliated against an engineer because he is Dalit Indian, a population once known as the “untouchables” under India’s centuries-old caste system. A 2018 survey of South Asians in the U.S. found that 67 percent of Dalits reported being treated unfairly at their American workplaces. 

The lawsuit further alleged that complainant was expected to accept a caste hierarchy within the workplace where he held the lowest status within a team of higher-caste colleagues, receiving less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment because of his religion, ancestry, national origin/ethnicity, and race/color. Over 70 percent of workers in Silicon Valley companies are immigrants, and more than 40 percent are Indian immigrants; and the majority of Indian Americans are Hindu.

The lawsuit said Cisco’s treatment of the employee violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The Civil Rights Act bans employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. It named Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, both high-caste Indians, and former employees of Cisco, who worked with the complainant in the San Jose office as supervisors, for discrimination and harassment. “The higher caste supervisors and co-workers imported the discriminatory system’s practices into their team and Cisco’s workplace,” the lawsuit alleges, and notes that the Dalit employee has a darker complexion than non-Dalit Indians.

Much Like Racial Discrimination

The Alphabet Workers Union statement describes caste as “a system of oppression analogous to racial discrimination,” which “is rampant throughout many American institutions,” the union said it supports “tech workers around the world who are speaking up about casteism and hostile workplaces.” Further noting that the company’s anti-discrimination policy prohibits caste discrimination in India but not in the U.S., the statement said: “Alphabet can lead the industry and become the first technology company to add caste as a protected category globally.”

Adding that CEO Sundar Pichai made a commitment to addressing racial equity, and that company must commit to caste equity with the same urgency, the statement continued: “Recognizing and addressing caste-based discrimination will benefit Alphabet, its workers, and its users worldwide.”

In India, Dalits, who have traditionally been considered untouchables, account for about 16.6 percent of the population, according to the 2011 Census figures. But published data about their socio-economic condition indicate a very sorry state of the community. Dalits’ control over the resources, for example, is less than 5 percent, and close to half of the population lives under the poverty line, and 62 percent are illiterate. A substantial number among its lowest sub-castes clean toilets and human excreta with bare hands while others are engaged in agricultural work, are landless or nearly landless laborers.

The caste-based prejudice doesn’t seem to evade those who have immigrated to the U.S. either. A 2017 report conducted by Equality Labs, a civil rights group, revealed that 67 percent of Dalit Americans felt they were treated unfairly at their workplaces. The report, ‘Caste in the United States — A Survey Of Caste Among South Asian Americans,’ showed the prevalence of caste discrimination, not just in the workplace, but on campuses as well. It revealed that one in four Dalits experienced physical assaults, two out three, work place discrimination, and one in three, discrimination in education.

Recently, a California student body has urged two universities in the state — California Polytechnic and the California State University — to include the Indian caste system in their anti-discriminatory policy. The demand was made in a resolution adopted on March 3 by Associated Students, Inc, the student body of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

The resolution talks about how “caste discrimination has long been overlooked by American institutions, with almost all institutions in the U.S. failing to protect caste oppressed people.”

The resolution talks about how “caste discrimination has long been overlooked by American institutions, with almost all institutions in the U.S. failing to protect caste oppressed people.” It further notes that “Cal Poly has a large and growing body of international students, specifically from South Asia, making caste a global issue that impacts sites of higher education.”

Dalit History Month

Equality Labs has hailed the move by the Alphabet Workers Union which coincided on Ambedkar Jayanthi (April 13) and during Dalit History Month. “We cannot overstate the importance of this moment,” read a statement issued by Dalit American activist and executive director Thenmozhi Soundararajan. “It is an incredible victory in the battle for caste civil rights for Alphabet workers to demand that caste be included in their anti discrimination policy and integrate caste into their equity practices,” she said. “This is the largest workers statement in the tech sector and it affirms definitively that the battle against caste apartheid is a workers rights issue.”

“Since last year, through confidential reporting, we have received hundreds of testimonials from Dalit and Bahujan workers in U.S.-based tech companies, attesting to the microagressions, shame, and blatant casteist violence they have endured in the industry,” she said. “It is critical that Alphabet workers in the U.S. are ensured caste discrimination protections and have caste-competent HR departments should they choose to report these instances of harm.”

In an earlier interview with American Kahani, Soundararajan called the lawsuit a “landmark” case. “It is the first civil rights case in the United States where a governmental entity is suing an American company for failing to protect caste oppressed employees and their negligence leading to a hostile workplace,” she told this writer. Speaking about about discrimination in work place, Soundararajan had noted that “tech is not a neutral place when it comes to caste.” She called it a reminder that “the power of dominant caste networks in tech departments has created hostile workplaces and uneven outcomes for Dalits who enter these discriminatory workplaces.”

The case will have “ramifications, not just in California but also for all American companies who do business with Indian employees, and will impact their practices in their localized offices in India,” she observed. “So it can have an impact on firms like Facebook, Google. Twitter, Microsoft, etc., and would impact thousands of Indian workers around the world. This case is a call for all Indian techies to self-reflect, do better, and be more inclusive as the call for caste equity will not be denied.”  Although caste does not operate here like it does in India, Soundararajan believes it is still forms a part of Dalit and Bahujan lives. “Caste is so deeply alive in the diaspora and it impacts so many parts of the Indian American experience.” 

See Also

Law Suit Against Apple

Last month, Bloomberg reported on Apple Inc., losing an early round in a discrimination lawsuit brought by an Indian American female engineer, alleging that her two managers, one from India and the other from Pakistan, treated her as “a subservient.” The female employee, identified in the Bloomberg report as Anita Nariani Schulze, alleged in the complaint, filed in the Santa Clara Superior Court that her senior and direct managers, both male, consistently excluded her from meetings while inviting her male counterparts, criticized her, micromanaged her work, and deprived her of bonuses, despite positive performance evaluations and significant team contributions.

As per the Bloomberg report, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Sunil R. Kulkarni, in rejecting Apple’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, Kulkarni said Schulze had adequately supported her legal claims. Apple had argued her claims weren’t specific enough and were based on stereotypes. However, he rejected Schulze’s request “to represent a class of female Apple employees who suffered job discrimination over the last four years. He agreed with Apple that she didn’t show a pattern of discrimination that could be applied to a broader group,” the Bloomberg report said.

Meanwhile, there have been a few updates on the Cisco case since it was filed. This March, a California court stayed the hearing for Cisco’s petitions in the lawsuit, arguing that the caste allegations should be deleted from the complaint as they are irrelevant. This ruling comes on the heels of a pending appeal filed by the company to compel arbitration after the trial court denied it. 

In a Feb. 26 order, Judge Drew C Takaichi denied private arbitration. “This claim and relief exceeds the scope of the private arbitration agreement.” On October 16, 2020, Cisco filed ‘demurrer’ and ‘motion of strike’ petitions in the California court, news reports said, adding that the hearing that was scheduled for March 9, has been stayed pending arbitration appeal.

Over a dozen U.S.-based civil rights organizations, including the Ambedkar International Center, the Ambedkar King Study Circle, and Anti-caste Discrimination Alliance filed an amicus brief opposing Cisco’s ‘demurrer’ and ‘motion to strike’ petitions, which challenges the legality of the caste bias lawsuit filed against it last year. Ryan McCarl and John Rushing, founding partners, Rushing McCarl law firm that filed the brief for Ambedkar International Center told Moneycontrol that “both the motions are at the core of the caste discrimination and outcome could force other technology companies to look at caste discrimination as a more serious issue.”

The HAF Intervention

On the other hand, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) filed an intervention in the case earlier this year, on grounds that caste had “nothing to do with Hinduism.” It argued that California’s lawsuit violates the religious freedom and due process rights of Hindu Americans and people of Indian origin. In a statement, the group noted that the caste system is in no way a legitimate part of Hindu beliefs, teachings or practices.” Adding that it “vehemently opposes all types of caste-based discrimination,” HAF said it “takes great exception to the State of California defaming and demeaning all of Hinduism by attempting to connect a caste system to the Hindu religion.”

In an opinion piece in American Kahani, HAF executive director Suhag Shukla noted that the State of California’s argument that the caste system is “a strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy,” and therefore an integral part of Hindu belief and practice, “is not only factually wrong and grotesque, but also in absolute contradiction to the precepts of the religion, its most important scriptures, the words of the most prominent Hindu spiritual leaders, and the beliefs of an overwhelming number of its own adherents.”

Several advocacy Hindu groups like Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) condemned HAF’s delinking caste from Hinduism. In reply to Shukla’s op-ed, HfHR co-founders, Sunita Viswanathan and Raju Rajagopal urged Hindus to “honestly acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of our legacy,” before making any progress in annihilating caste. “We reject HAF’s bogus and self-serving assertion that speaking honestly about caste opens up discrimination against Hindus,” they wrote in American Kahani. “Certainly, HAF does not speak for us or for the hundreds of millions of Hindus who continue their daily struggle against casteism,” they wrote. “As Hindus ourselves, we believe deeply in oneness, ekatva, as a guiding principle that leads us to see the Divine in others and stand up for the rights of all. But we cannot say that believing in oneness absolves our traditions of a long legacy of casteism. Caste will not go away if we simply stop talking about it—rather, we need to confront it head on.”

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