Civil rights advocates are calling on a U.S. agency to recognize that caste discrimination is illegal under existing federal law, an issue growing more prominent as tech companies are hit with litigation by South Asian workers alleging bias based on social status.
A dozen groups, including the International Commission on Dalit Rights, pressed the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to acknowledge that the practice of discriminating against historically oppressed South Asian groups is “an urgent contemporary U.S. civil rights and social justice issue,” according to a memo sent to the agency on Monday and obtained by Bloomberg Law.
Caste prejudices parallel race bias in the U.S. because both “are social constructs designed to uphold systems of domination, exclusion, injustice, inequality, and discrimination,” the memo says. Advocates for the Dalit population, or the lowest caste in the hierarchical social system, say the mistreatment is more prevalent in workplaces with large populations of South Asian employees, such as in the technology sector.
Read more: Big Tech Is Importing India’s Caste Legacy to Silicon Valley
The EEOC enforces federal workplace anti-discrimination laws, including Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits bias based on race, national origin, and other protected statuses. The groups say those provisions encompass caste discrimination, as well. But very few caste bias allegations have made their way through courts to test whether Title VII or state laws protect against that form of discrimination.
“The EEOC’s recognition of the intertwined nature of caste and race is an urgent and crucial step towards promoting human dignity, and ensuring justice, equality and nondiscrimination in the workplace,” the memo states.
The EEOC doesn’t have a formal “policy position” on how Title VII may apply to caste discrimination, said Joseph Olivares, an EEOC spokesman, before receiving the memo.
Caste discrimination occurs within South Asian communities, with workers at the bottom of the hierarchy experiencing harassment, bullying, and exclusion “in private, public and places of work,” the memo states.
“Every day, on a covert basis, many Dalit Americans face discrimination that can be addressed by the American legal system,” the groups said. “All Americans must be treated with dignity and respect at work and in all other aspects of their lives regardless of caste or race, descent and national origin or another protected classification.”
American companies, and their human resources departments, are being forced to grapple with these prejudices as they’re imported with workers from other cultures.
In the Cisco case, for example, an unnamed Dalit employee identified only as John Doe alleged he faced a hostile work environment, and received less pay and fewer opportunities.
“We have zero tolerance for discrimination and take all complaints of unfair treatment very seriously. In this case, we thoroughly and fully investigated the employee’s concerns and found that he was treated fairly, highly compensated, and afforded opportunities to work on coveted projects,” Cisco spokeswoman Robyn Blum said in an email Monday. “If we had found any discrimination or retaliation, we would have remediated it.”
Microsoft declined to comment and Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Not all groups agree that caste discrimination is prevalent in the U.S.
“Caste has no legal, social, or cultural definition in the United States, and is not an observable or objectively determinable trait or characteristic,” said the Hindu American Foundation, a religious advocacy group, in the group’s motion to intervene in the Cisco case. The organization alleges the California employment agency’s lawsuit violates the constitutional rights of Hindu Americans.
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