Understanding Caste Discrimination: What Workplaces Should Know to Avoid Possible Lawsuits

Two U.S. lawsuits show that caste discrimination may exist in the U.S. Here's what employers need to know.
By: | April 29, 2022

Two recent lawsuits highlight how U.S. civil rights laws and HR departments may have overlooked the risk of caste discrimination. 

Castes, partof the Hindu religion, are a form of social stratification that has existed in India and parts of other South Asian countries in some form for at least 3,000 years. The system divides Hindus into four main categories: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Outside of the caste system are Dalits, who have been referred to as “untouchables” within the system. 

Though the order has existed in some form for thousands of years, historians say that it became more rigid in the 18th century and that new research suggests hard caste boundaries were set by British colonial rulers, per reporting from the BBC.   

Caste discrimination is illegal in India, but it does still occur. Now the U.S. is starting to see its own caste discrimination claims. 

Caste Discrimination Lawsuits

One lawsuit filed in June 2020 by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleges that Cisco Systems failed to address caste discrimination against an engineer from the Dalit caste. 

The Department alleges the Dalit engineer, identified as John Doe, “was expected to accept a caste hierarchy within the workplace where Doe held the lowest status within the team and, as a result, received less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment because of his religion, ancestry, national origin/ethnicity, and race/color.”

It also alleges that Cisco allowed the employee to be harassed by two managers, because he was from a lower Indian caste than them.

Another lawsuit was filed in May 2021 against Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), a Hindu sect that operates a temple in Robbinsville, N.J.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, alleges that a group of about 200 Dalits were brought to the U.S. under R1 Visas, held against their will on the premises, forced to work 13-hour shifts for weeks on end with no time off, and paid just over $1 an hour.

The claims were expanded in October 2021 to include temples in several other cities across the country, where workers say they were also exploited. In addition to employment and human trafficking claims, the complaint also alleges defendants intentionally recruited workers from scheduled castes such as Dalit.

Since the Cisco case was filed, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, director of Equality Labs, a U.S.-based Dalit civil rights organization, said reports of caste discrimination in Silicon Valley have been on the rise. 

An Equality Labs survey from 2021-2022 of 500 tech workers found that 40% of respondents reported experiencing some form of caste discrimination. 

“Very few of the respondents reported to HR about caste discrimination, citing lack of caste equity policies and caste equity competency [within HR departments], as well as fear of being outed and of retaliation,” Soundararajan said.

“They also were worried about losing their jobs, which for many H1b workers also means losing their immigration status in the United States.”

Employment attorneys with Rushing McCarl LLP in Los Angeles wrote an amicus brief in the Cisco case on behalf of Ambedkar International Center, an organization dedicated to curbing caste-based human rights violations. 

The firm asserts the California Fair Employment and Housing Act bars caste discrimination, because it is a form of ancestry discrimination. 

Although the firm did not argue the implications of Title VII in the brief, it was subsequently asked to present a legal framework to the U.S. Department of Justice that would support the application of Title VII to caste discrimination issues.

In their presentation, Rushing McCarl asserted that Title VII prohibits caste discrimination based on race and national origin. They likened the global Indian diaspora to the Latinx community and said discrimination against either group is unacceptable.  

“There is no doubt that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on someone’s identity as Latinx. So, there should be no doubt that Title VII also prohibits discrimination based on someone’s identity as a Dalit or a member of a so-called ‘untouchable’ caste,” they wrote.

How Should Companies Address Caste Discrimination

Caste discrimination in the U.S. is a burgeoning issue, but some institutions are already starting to ban the practice. 

Leading the way are colleges and universities. In January 2022, the California State University system, the largest university system in the nation, added caste to its anti-discrimination policies. Other universities that explicitly ban caste discrimination include Harvard, Brandeis and Colby College. 

Toni Molle, director of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs for the Office of the Chancellor at the California University System, said the university established the ban after seeking feedback for more than two years from student advocates and academic and legal experts. 

Soundararajan applauds the university system’s ban and suggests employers should follow in CSU’s path in creating policies banning caste discrimination. 

But not everyone agrees that employers should take that step or that caste discrimination should be explicitly banned under Title VII and similar state-level laws. 

The Hindu American Foundation opposes caste discrimination. At the same time, it charges that CSU’s ban will institutionalize discrimination against all people of Indian and Hindu heritage. 

“Because caste is so entwined in the public understanding of Indians and Hinduism, the category is de facto facially discriminatory [meaning it explicitly discriminates based on racial classifications] and discriminatory in application as it would single out and apply to individuals on the basis of their Indian or South Asian national origin and Hindu religion,” said Suhag Shukla, an attorney and executive director of the foundation.

“It treats Indian and/or Hindus in a manner that is different from all other backgrounds. This, by definition, is discriminatory,” she added. 

Legal Advice for Addressing Caste Discrimination in the Workplace

John Rushing, managing partner at Rushing McCarl, which works with both plaintiffs and defendants, advises clients to be aware that the issue of caste discrimination may exist beneath the surface in a workplace. 

“No company should want any of its personnel decisions to be made on the basis of caste or ancestry or any other similar non-merit consideration, whether or not it is expressly prohibited by an anti-discrimination law,” Rushing said. 

There are many actions businesses can take to address the issue, Rushing said, such as implementing trainings and updating handbooks and policies.  

“They can adopt a no-tolerance policy for caste discrimination. They can encourage anonymous reporting. They can take steps to root this out before it gets to the point where you have a worker who’s been retaliated against, or not promoted to the point where he has to file a government complaint,” Rushing said. &

Annemarie Mannion is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].

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