San Francisco, California, United States – Civil rights organizations and Dalit rights groups add urgency to calls to end caste discrimination in the United States after incidents in California and New Jersey hit put the issue in the spotlight.
Dalits, officially referred to as “untouchables”, occupy the lowest position in the complex Hindu caste system and have historically faced discrimination and violence from members of other castes in India and elsewhere. other parts of South Asia.
Proponents say that this discrimination has unfortunately migrated to the United States along with workers in the region and is now rampant in several American industries.
In New Jersey, a complaint has been filed on behalf of more than 200 Indian workers in federal court on Tuesday, alleging that Dalit workers were forced to work long hours for a tenth of the state’s minimum wage after being recruited to build a Hindu temple for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, also known as BAPS.
In California, a first legal action is making its way to court after a Dalit employee accused his employer, tech giant Cisco, and two of his former engineering directors of allowing caste discrimination in the workplace.
The issue is also being debated at the federal level. On Monday, the International Commission for the Rights of Dalits (ICDR), six academics and a dozen other rights groups submitted a memo to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, calling for caste discrimination to be added to non-discriminatory US federal guidelines.
The memo is the latest push by activists to make US academic, business and government institutions take caste discrimination seriously.
Among the demands of the ICDR and other signatories of the note are the inclusion of caste as a protected class and the inclusion of zero tolerance for caste-based discrimination and prejudice in codes of conduct. Americans in the workplace – which activists say is not yet happening in part because of Americans’ unfamiliarity. with the caste system.
“Because casteism takes place in a social context that not all Americans are familiar with, it can be very coded and subtle,” Anil Wagde, an attorney with the American branch of the rights organization, told Al Jazeera. of the Dalits, the Ambedkar International Center. “It is important for companies to educate their employees about caste discrimination and to explicitly protect themselves against it.”
Advocacy groups are now working to put caste discrimination in the spotlight, especially in industries where it has already allegedly reared its ugly head, such as the tech sector.
The Cisco case was a big deal because it really removed the plausible deniability around the presence of caste discrimination in the tech industry.
“Caste is a brutal form of supremacy,” Wagde said. “If action is not taken now, we run the risk of this system spreading and calcifying in the United States.”
Several tech companies have faced allegations of caste discrimination in the workplace in recent years, and as of October 30 female Dalit engineers at Google, Apple, Microsoft and Cisco released a statement shared with the Washington Post detailing their experiences with anti-Dalit fanaticism in the tech sector.
“We also had to deal with humiliating insults to our background and that we got our job only through affirmative action. It’s exhausting, ”wrote the women, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“We’re good at our jobs and we’re good engineers. We are role models for our community and we want to keep working in our jobs. But it is unfair for us to continue in hostile workplaces, without protection from caste discrimination.
The women spoke out months after the high-profile lawsuit against Cisco was filed by a Dalit engineer in June 2020.
In the costume (PDF), the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) alleges that the engineer, called John Doe to protect his identity, was subjected to a hostile work environment and had to “accept a caste hierarchy in place of work ”, which resulted in“ The lowest status on the team ”and less pay, fewer opportunities and other inferior conditions.
But Cisco denies the claims and said its own internal investigation “found no evidence that [the plaintiff] has been the victim of discrimination or reprisals on the basis of caste, ”said company general counsel Mark Chandler, written in a blog post.
While Chandler acknowledged that the company “had never encountered a claim of casteism” before this one, he noted that “Nonetheless, the employee relations department requested that it be the subject of an investigation as would any complaint of discrimination, even if there is no law, federal or state. , defining caste as a protected classification. “
Caste is a brutal form of supremacy. If action is not taken now, we run the risk of this system spreading and calcifying in the United States.
Although Cisco said it treats casteism as an unacceptable form of discrimination, it did not answer Al Jazeera’s question as to whether the company planned to explicitly add caste to the list of protected identities in its code. employee conduct.
Chandler added that the company would fully support the legislation “adding caste to the list of categories protected against discrimination,” but “will continue to treat caste as an unacceptable form of discrimination for the purposes of our internal reviews – such as we did it in [this plaintiff’s] Case”.
John Rushing, an attorney assisting the Ambedkar International Center, who filed an amicus brief in the lawsuit, said that while caste is not expressly protected, it falls into categories such as ancestry.
“If your parents are ‘untouchable’, you inherit that status from them,” Rushing told Al Jazeera. “There is no doubt that caste discrimination falls under discrimination on the basis of descent.”
Many Dalits come to the United States in the hope of escaping the fanaticism and violence with which they live at home, only to watch in horror as these systems reorient themselves in the United States.
Workers at other Silicon Valley tech companies are speaking out as well. In mid-April, the Alphabet Workers Union issued a statement in favor of the Cisco lawsuit and said “the caste should be recognized as a federally protected class and included in anti-harassment policies within our industry,” including Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc.
“The Cisco case was a big deal because it really took away the plausible denial around the presence of caste discrimination in the tech industry,” said Raksha Muthukumar, a spokesperson for the alphabet workers at Al Jazeera.
“I think a lot of companies are paying attention now, and it’s time for them to recognize caste as a protected identity,” Muthukumar added.
Google did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the company’s intention to take action to protect itself against casteism.
The Cisco case is expected to resume in September following attempts by Cisco to refer the dispute to arbitration and an appeal by the California DFEH to allow the plaintiff to remain anonymous.
As Dalit activists wait for an outcome in the Cisco affair, calls are mounting for government, academia and business organizations to be more proactive in fighting and educating employees about casteism.
“Many Dalits come to the United States in the hope of escaping the fanaticism and violence with which they live at home, to watch in horror as these systems reorient themselves in the United States,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder of the Dalit rights group Equality Labs, told Al Jazeera.
A 2016 Equality Labs survey of Dalit workers living in the United States found that two in three reported experiencing harassment because of their lower caste status in the workplace. But while Soundararajan says such discrimination is common, hearing Dalits about it is less so.
“Many Dalits try to hide their caste identity,” she said.
Dalit advocacy groups say the problem is also rife in the education system. In the Equality Labs survey, one in three Dalit students reported experiencing discrimination while in school.
A victory in this case (Cisco) would be a victory for the promise that America offers an opportunity for a new life with equal rights. If this matter comes to fruition, Dalits will start speaking out, and there will be many more. If we do not address this problem now, the situation will continue to worsen.
The plaintiff in the Cisco lawsuit claims he tried to keep his Dalit identity hidden but was exposed by upper caste colleagues who knew him at university in India.
The Cal State Student Association (CSSA), an organization representing more than half a million students in the California state university system, unanimously adopted a resolution in April, by supporting the addition of caste as a protected category, another example of how the issue has come to the fore since Cisco’s complaint was filed.
But as more Dalits speak out and use the courts to tackle caste discrimination, Soundararajan said more Dalits are ready to share their own experiences.
“The Dalits have come forward and shared their stories of harassment and discrimination with us in a way we have never seen before,” Soundararajan said. “One person told us they had made a mistake on a project and a supervisor from a higher caste told them, ‘We know how foolish your people are.’
Dalits also see the outcome of the trial as an indicator of their struggle for rights and recognition.
“A victory in this [Cisco] This case would be a victory for the promise that America offers an opportunity for a new life with equal rights, ”Suraj Yengde, a senior researcher at Harvard Kennedy School who studies caste, told Al Jazeera.
“If this case passes, the Dalits will start speaking out, and there will be many more. If we do not address this problem now, the situation will continue to worsen. “