Institutional casteism —
Workers allege that casteism influences how companies hire and promote talent.
– Aug 15, 2022 10:24 pm UTC
To help combat caste-based discrimination, the Indian government saves spots at the best Indian universities for lower-caste students, who often take that opportunity and turn it into a tech job in Silicon Valley. In the US, discrimination laws don’t specifically protect citizens based on caste, though that is changing. Reuters reports that, out of all the Big Tech companies relying on India’s skilled workers, Apple has been most explicit about preventing discrimination by caste among its US employees.
Reported this week for the first time publicly, Apple updated its employee conduct policy in 2020 to “explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of caste,” the same way it prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, and ancestry.
The decision came after “the first US employment lawsuit about alleged casteism” was filed in June 2020 by a California employment regulator defending a low-caste engineer working at Cisco Systems. The engineer alleged that two of his Cisco bosses were higher-caste and impeded his advancement opportunities at the tech company.
Although Cisco has denied any wrongdoing and claims that it’s protected because California law does not prohibit discrimination by caste, the company will have to raise those defenses publicly in court. An appeals panel declined Cisco’s request for private arbitration. Cisco did not immediately provide Ars with a comment on the lawsuit or the company’s internal policies. (Update: A Cisco spokesperson declined to comment on ongoing litigation.)
Historically, caste was decided by family lineage, with the lowest castes assigned the worst jobs and the highest castes getting the better-paid work. Over time, research found that the caste system led higher-caste workers to become less likely to cooperate with people associated with lower castes. Though today lower-caste Indians can compete for better jobs, some higher-caste employees at tech companies may still view promoting lower-caste members as an insult to their ancestry.
Reuters interviewed “about two dozen” lower-caste US tech workers who claimed that they were overlooked for “hiring, promotions, and social activities” based on “caste cues.” Those cues could be based on their names, where they were born, or even what foods they ate for lunch.
Until US labor laws update the definition of discrimination to include casteism as on par with racism and sexism, each tech company is left to devise their own solutions to alleged discrimination. Reuters reviewed US industries employing “hundreds of thousands of workers from India” and found “patchy results” on the issue of casteism.
Apple told Reuters that the company “updated language a couple of years ago” in its equal employment opportunity and anti-harassment policies to reinforce that the company prohibits “discrimination or harassment based on caste.” It did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.
IBM is another tech company that addresses casteism in its global policies.
But Reuters’ review of internal policy documents from companies like Meta, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon show that they do not explicitly prohibit casteism. All of these companies told Reuters that they “have zero tolerance for caste prejudice,” however, and some claimed that “such bias would fall under existing bans on discrimination by categories such as ancestry and national origin.” Those reassurances were not enough to stop more than 1,600 Google employees from signing a petition asking the company to add casteism to its global employee code of conduct as a form of prohibited discrimination.
Apple hasn’t said whether any complaints about casteism have been filed since updating its policies, but it’s clear from the Google petition that at least some US workers hope more tech giants follow in Apple’s footsteps. Google did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.
It’s possible that the outcome of the Cisco discrimination case—which could come early next year—will prompt further changes to both US discrimination laws and the tech companies who set their policies based on federal and state guidance.