I own a small business, employing eight people. One of my employees, a Hindu, is refusing to work with her new line manager because she is a Dalit or, as she says, a 'lower caste'. Our business is small so there is no scope to relocate or separate them. What do I do?
'Dalit' is a term for a group of people traditionally regarded as of low caste and was historically made up of numerous caste groups all over South Asia speaking various languages.
The caste system itself is a social phenomenon and has no genetic basis, and was formally abolished under the Indian constitution in 1976. Many commentators and organisations feel that the caste system has been imported into the UK labour market, and groups are campaigning for caste to be specifically covered in the Equality Bill.
The Bill is currently working its way through Parliament and aims to consolidate nine existing equality laws into a single law that will tackle disadvantage and discrimination based on race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief, but it does not expressly deal with caste discrimination at present.
Turning to your problem, caste discrimination is not specifically recognised in existing UK legislation and, because of its fluid nature, it does not naturally fall into the camps of race or religious discrimination. For instance, many Dalits follow the Hindu faith. However, individual aspects of caste may well be caught by discrimination legislation.
On a practical level, you should encourage dialogue between the individuals to see whether the matter can be resolved informally. If this does not work, it may be that the problem is suited to mediation by a third party, and I would refer you to the new Acas Guide on Discipline and Grievances on this point.
You should certainly take advice throughout the process as the issues involved here are potentially complex as you are balancing the competing rights of two workers. If you reach a position whereby the Hindu employee simply refuses to work with the Dalit employee, you may be faced with having to make a decision in relation to the Hindu employee's continued employment.
Without wishing to over simplify the issue, the question to ask yourself is whether you would treat a non-Hindu worker in the same manner as this Hindu worker if they were refusing to work with a colleague due to their perceived 'status' or their race or religion?
If the answer is yes, you should be in a position to defend a claim on the basis that the dismissal was substantially fair and was not less favourable treatment or tainted by discrimination on the basis of race and/or religious belief.
Emma Harvey, partner, DWF