Caste in California: Tech giants confront ancient Indian hierarchy

The inclusion of the new category goes beyond the US discrimination laws

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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

By Reuters

Published: Mon 15 Aug 2022, 9:33 AM

America's tech giants are taking a modern-day crash course in India's ancient caste system, with Apple emerging as an early leader in policies to rid Silicon Valley of a rigid hierarchy that's segregated Indians for generations.

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 the 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 on behalf of a lower-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.

The dispute — the first US employment lawsuit about alleged casteism — has forced Big Tech to confront a millennia-old hierarchy, where Indians' social position has been based on family lineage, from the top Brahmin "priestly" class, to the Dalits, shunned as "untouchables" and consigned to menial labour.

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

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 am not surprised that the policies would be inconsistent, because that's almost what you would expect when the law is not clear," said Kevin Brown, a University of South Carolina law professor studying caste issues, citing uncertainty among executives over whether caste would ultimately make it into US statutes.

"I could imagine that parts of... [an] organisation are saying this makes sense, and other parts are saying we don't think taking a stance makes sense," he explained.

Apple's main internal policy on workplace conduct, which was seen by Reuters, added a reference to caste in the equal employment opportunity and anti-harassment sections after September 2020.

Apple confirmed that it "updated language a couple of years ago to reinforce that we prohibit discrimination or harassment based on caste". It added that the 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.

"We have a diverse and global team, and are proud that our policies and actions reflect that."


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. IBM's only training that mentions caste is for managers in India, the company added.

Several companies do not specifically reference caste in their main global policy, including Amazon, Dell , Facebook owner Meta, Microsoft and Google. Reuters reviewed each of the policies, some of which are only published internally to employees.

The companies all told Reuters that they have zero tolerance for caste prejudice and, apart from Meta which did not elaborate, said such biases would fall under existing bans on discrimination, by categories such as ancestry and national origin policy.

Caste discrimination was outlawed in India over 70 years ago, and yet, caste bias persists, according to several studies in recent years, including one that found that Dalit people were under-represented in higher-paying jobs. Debate over the hierarchy is contentious in India and abroad, with the issue intertwined with religion, and some people insisting that discrimination is now rare.

Government policies reserving seats for lower-caste students at top Indian universities have helped many land tech jobs in the West, in recent years.

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

The World Wide Web Consortium, an industry-standards body partly based in Massachusetts, introduced it in July 2020. 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.

South Carolina law professor Brown expects no immediate resolution to the debate over whether companies should reference caste.

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

"The area right now is unsettled."

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