Caste in California: Tech giants take on India’s ancient hierarchy

By Paresh Dave

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) – U.S. tech giants are getting a modern 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 has separated Indians for generations.

Apple, the world’s largest listed company, updated its general employee conduct policy about two years ago to explicitly prohibit caste-based discrimination, which it added to existing categories such as race, religion, sex, age and ancestry.

The inclusion of the new category, which has not previously been reported, goes beyond US discrimination laws, which do not explicitly prohibit caste.

The update came after the tech sector – which counts India as its top source of skilled foreign workers – received a red flag in June 2020 when California’s employment regulator sued Cisco Systems on behalf of a low caste engineer who accused two upper caste bosses of blocking his career.

Cisco, which denies any wrongdoing, says an internal investigation found no evidence of discrimination and some of the allegations are baseless because caste is not a “protected class” legally in California. This month an appeals committee rejected the networking company‘s offer to push the case to private arbitration, meaning a public trial could come as early as next year.

The dispute – the first employment lawsuit in the United States over alleged casteism – forced Big Tech to confront a millennial hierarchy where the social position of Indians was based on family lineage, from the Brahmin “priestly” upper class. to the Dalits, shunned as “untouchables” and condemned to menial work.

Since the lawsuit was filed, several activist and employee groups have begun calling for an update to U.S. discrimination laws — and have also called on tech companies to change their own policies to help fill the void. and to deter castes.

Their efforts have produced mixed results, according to a Reuters study of the politics of the American industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of Indian workers.

“I’m not surprised the policies are inconsistent because that’s almost what you’d expect when the law isn’t clear,” said University of South Carolina law professor Kevin Brown. who studies caste issues, citing leadership uncertainty over whether caste would ultimately make them American laws.

“I could imagine that some parts of … (a) organization say it makes sense, and other parts say we don’t think taking a stand makes sense.”

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

Apple confirmed that it “updated the language a few years ago to reinforce that we prohibit caste-based discrimination or harassment.” He added that the training provided to staff also explicitly mentions caste.

“Our teams continually evaluate our policies, training, processes and resources to ensure they are comprehensive,” he said. “We have a diverse and global team, and we’re proud that our policies and actions reflect that.”

Elsewhere in tech, IBM told Reuters it added caste, which was already listed in India-specific policies, to its global discrimination rules after the Cisco lawsuit was filed, although he refused to give a specific date or justification.

The only IBM 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 has reviewed each of the policies, some of which are only published internally for employees.

The companies all told Reuters they had zero tolerance for caste bias and, with the exception of Meta which did not elaborate, said such bias would fall under existing bans on categorical discrimination such as ancestry and national origin politics.

CASTEISM FORBIDDEN IN INDIA

Caste discrimination was banned in India more than 70 years ago, but prejudice persists, according to several studies in recent years, including one that found Dalits were underrepresented in higher paying jobs https:// publications.azimpremjiuniversity.edu.in/1450/1/SWI_2018_Report.pdf. The hierarchy debate is controversial in India and abroad, with the issue tied to religion, and some people say discrimination is now rare.

Government policies reserving places for lower caste students in top Indian universities have helped many earth tech jobs in the West in recent years.

Reuters spoke to about two dozen Dalit tech workers in the United States who said discrimination had followed them abroad. They said caste cues, including their surnames, hometowns, diets or religious practices, led co-workers to bypass them during hiring, promotions and social events.

Reuters could not independently verify the claims of the workers, who all spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they feared harm to their careers. Two said they left their jobs because of what they considered casteism.

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

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

More than 1,600 Google employees demanded caste be added to the world’s main workplace code of conduct in a petition, seen by Reuters, which they emailed CEO Sundar Pichai on last month and returned last week after no response.

Google reiterated to Reuters that caste discrimination falls under national origin, ancestry and ethnic discrimination. He declined to give further details of his policy.

“NOT GOOD FOR BUSINESS”

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

The World Wide Web Consortium, an industry standards body based partly in Massachusetts, introduced it in July 2020. California State University and the State Democratic Party have followed for the past two years.

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

Still, the move by Apple, a $2.8 trillion giant with more than 165,000 full-time employees worldwide, looms large.

The iPhone maker’s Fair Hire Policy now states that Apple “does not discriminate in recruiting, training, hiring, or promoting based on” 18 categories, including “race, color, ancestry, national origin, caste, religion, creed, age” as well as disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.

By contrast, many employers are reluctant to go beyond the law with their core policies, according to three labor lawyers, including Koray Bulut, a partner at Goodwin Procter.

“Most companies simply cite federal and state laws that list protected categories,” Bulut said.

Some companies, however, have gone further into secondary policies that govern limited operations or only serve as loose guidelines.

Caste is explicitly enshrined in Dell’s global social media policy, for example, and in the Global Human Rights Principles of Amazon’s Sustainability Team and Google’s Code of Conduct for suppliers.

Amazon and Dell have confirmed that they have also started mentioning caste in anti-bias presentations for at least some new hires outside of India. They declined to say when, why, or to what extent they made the addition, though Dell said it made the change after the lawsuit against Cisco was filed.

Company presentations include explanations of caste as an undesirable social structure that exists in some parts of the world, according to a Reuters review of some of the online training, with Dell material referring to a recent lawsuit “from the big securities”.

John-Paul Singh Deol, senior labor lawyer at Dhillon Law Group in San Francisco, said including only caste in the training and guidelines was “lip service” to the issue because their legal force is questionable.

That characterization was dismissed by Janine Yancey, CEO of Emtrain, which sells anti-bias training to about 550 employers, and a longtime labor lawyer.

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

Still, explicitly referencing caste would likely lead to an increased number of HR complaints alleging it’s bias, Yancey added.

“Every time you go to call something specific, you exponentially increase your workload,” she said.

Apple declined to say whether any complaints have been filed under its caste provision.

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

“This is a matter that will ultimately be resolved by the courts,” he said. “The area right now is unstable.”

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington and Sudarshan Varadhan in New Delhi; Editing by Kenneth Li and Pravin Char)

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