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Civil Rights Groups Demand Action Against Caste Discrimination in American Work Places

Civil Rights Groups Demand Action Against Caste Discrimination in American Work Places

  • In a memo sent to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, representatives from a dozen organizations note that the abuse is more prevalent in the technology sector, which has lots of South Asian employees.

Civil rights groups are urging the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to take action on caste discrimination and bias based on social status in work places and recognize that it is illegal under existing federal laws. The EEOC enforces federal workplace anti-discrimination laws, including Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits bias based on race, national origin, and other protected statuses.

In a May 10 memo addressed to the U.S. agency, a dozen groups, led by the International Commission on Dalit Rights (ICDR) , requested that it “recognize the intertwined nature of caste and race and thereby include a prohibition against ‘caste-based discrimination’ as already covered by Title VII in relevant EEOC non- discriminatory guidelines and other EEOC materials.”

Noting that the mistreatment is more prevalent in workplaces with large populations of South Asian employees, such as in the technology sector, the memo highlights the Cisco case where two managers are accused of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against a Dalit employee.

Joining ICDR are South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), Hindus for Human Rights, Dalit American Federation, South Asia Initiative, Sadhana, New York, Boston Study Group (BSG), Ambedkar International Mission (AIM USA), Texas, Ambedkar Association of Northern America (AANA), Michigan, Ambedkar International Center (AIC), Maryland, NASO Community, Maryland, and The Quander Historical Society, Washington, D.C. 

The memo is also individually signed by Judge Rahulamin Quander, Retired Sr. Law Administrative Judge for District of Columbia; Annapurna D. Waughray, Reader, Manchester Law School, Manchester Metropolitan University; M. Farook Sait, Esq., former Special Counselor to the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Civil Rights Attorney; Deepa Iyer, a South Asian American writer, strategist, lawyer, and racial justiceadvocate, and Purvi Mehta, Assistant Professor, History Department, Colorado College, among others.

“Race and caste are social constructs designed to uphold systems of domination, exclusion, injustice, inequality, and discrimination,” the memo says. Describing caste systems as “hierarchical forms of social division based on descent or ancestry,” the memo cites the U.N. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which “prohibits racial discrimination based on descent, which includes caste and analogous systems of inherited status.” The U.S ratified the convention in 1994. 

The Cisco CaseIn 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.

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.

Last month, Alphabet Workers Union demanded that caste be included in the company’s anti discrimination policy and be integrated into their equity practices.

Caste-discrimination in Tech Companies

Last month, Alphabet Workers Union demanded 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. 

The EEOC memo gives examples of how caste-based discrimination exists and flourishes in the U.S. It cities a report by Dalit advocacy group Equality Labs which shows that weeks since the Cisco lawsuit was announced, more than 250 Dalits from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, and dozens of others in Silicon Valley came forward to forward to report discrimination, bullying, ostracization, and even sexual harassment by colleagues who are higher-caste Indians.

In an earlier interview with American Kahani, Dalit American activist and Equality Labs executive director Thenmozhi Soundararajan called the CISCO 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, she 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.”

She had predicted that the Cisco 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 added that the 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

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.

Caste on Campus

The caste-based prejudice doesn’t seem to evade those who have immigrated to the U.S. either. A 2018 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.” 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.”

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.

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