Caste discrimination and the workplace

For many Asian employees, caste discrimination is a daily reality – but until recently, it wasn’t even officially recognised as existing in the UK.

The impact of caste is finally beginning to been taken seriously by policy makers. With the new Equality Act, which comes into force in October this year, the minister responsible has a power to introduce secondary legislation if proof is found that caste discrimination exists in the areas covered by the Act, namely education, employment and the provision of goods and services.

The Indian caste system traditionally existed as a form of social hierarchy, combining aspects of both race and occupational class. The term ‘caste’ was introduced into India by the Portuguese colonialists to conceptualise forms of racial segregation within the society. The two main terms used by Indians are ‘varna’ and ‘jati’.

Eradication of caste discrimination is a big public policy issue in India itself, and positive discrimination policies in relation to education and employment are in place, made possible through active ‘caste monitoring’, with those people designated as belonging to the lower castes given certain preferences. As a social system, it is breaking down due to the spread of more moderate views, but some of the ideological aspects are alive and kicking and increasingly expressed in very subtle ways.

Among ethnic communities in the UK, there are long-established associations based on caste, so it retains some kind of relevance and acceptability when people are make judgements about character and status. Also, many Asian surnames are caste based, so caste is explicit right from the start. Research in the UK has shown more than 50,000 Dalits – once known as “untouchables” – have experienced discrimination from other castes in terms of jobs, healthcare, and in schools.

The nature of the workplace as a form of competitive environment means caste discrimination has the potential to play an insidious role in day-to-day decision-making, in the recruitment process, in considering promotions and management – and just like prejudice based on religion, gender and or ethnicity, is entirely unacceptable.

But how is caste affecting workplaces? The honest answer is that no-one knows. Research is a problem – because unlike ethnicity and religion, which are mostly seen as positive associations, many people choose to disassociate themselves from the whole idea of being part of a caste – but will be increasingly important to identify what is really happening.

Another reason why the issue of caste has not gained prominence in public policy circles is that, unlike other areas of discrimination, it has not had a political movement campaigning for its eradication. However, things are changing, and organisations such as CasteWatchUK and the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance are actively engaged in raising public awareness of caste discrimination in the UK and in lobbying politicians to incorporate caste within anti-discrimination laws.

Despite this historical precedence, it has taken many generations in the lives of Asians in the UK for the issue to be considered at a policy level in this country. The reasons for this inaction are complex, but in part it highlights a lack of understanding of the cultures of minority ethnic communities, and in particular the segregation and divisions that exist within these communities.

However, it also reflects perhaps the difficulty in actually proving discrimination of the kind and the sheer subtlety of how it might be manifested and the problems with identifying and pinning ‘blame’ as a result. There is also the issue at government level of a fear of being seen as racist, of identifying particular groups as being responsible for discrimination.

Caste being included as part of the equality legislation will expose employers to a complex area. On a practical level, HR professionals will need to be more aware of the extent to which the issue is relevant to their organisation, develop a greater understanding of the nature of caste politics, and ensure policies and practices reflect the legislation. Training in dealing with sensitive and culture-specific issues will be important for some organisations, briefings for managers and staff more generally may also be necessary.

More difficult will be the need to ensure the awareness of the problem translates into constructive and appropriate interventions, and if it’s ever necessary, making the unmentionable – discrimination which relates to one specific group – a matter for open conversation.

Only this way will an historic prejudice be addressed and allow the UK to catch up with the progress made in India itself.

Dr Gurnam Singh, principal lecturer, Department of Social and Community Studies, Coventry University

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