California Tech Firms Clash with Old Indian Hierarchies

America’s tech behemoths are getting a crash course in India’s historic caste system, with Apple emerging as an early leader in policies aimed at ridding Silicon Valley of a rigid hierarchy that has separated Indians for generations.

Apple, the world’s largest publicly traded business, revised its general employee conduct code around two years ago to clearly prohibit caste discrimination, adding it to existing categories such as race, religion, gender, age, and ancestry.

The new category, which has not previously been disclosed, goes beyond U.S. discrimination statutes, which do not explicitly prohibit casteism.

The change comes after the IT industry, which relies heavily on qualified foreign employees from India, was given a wake-up call in June 2020 when California’s employment regulator sued Cisco Systems on behalf of a low-caste engineer who accused two higher-caste employers of stifling his development.

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Cisco, which denies any wrongdoing, claims that an internal investigation found no evidence of prejudice and that some of the charges are unfounded because caste is not a legally “protected class” in California. An appeals panel rejected the networking company’s effort to send the matter to private arbitration earlier this month, implying that a public court case might be filed as early as next year.

The disagreement has forced Big Tech to confront a millennium-old hierarchy in which Indians’ social position has been dependent on family ancestry, from the top Brahmin “priestly” class to the Dalits, ostracised as “untouchables” and subjected to menial work.

Since the action was filed, various activist and employee groups have been advocating for updated discrimination legislation in the United States, as well as urging tech businesses to amend their own rules to assist fill the hole and avoid casteism.

According to a Reuters assessment of policy throughout the US industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of Indian workers, their efforts have yielded mixed results.

“I am not surprised that the policies would be inconsistent because that’s almost what you would expect when the law is not clear,” said Kevin Brown, a University of South Carolina law professor studying caste issues, indicating executive worry about whether caste might eventually be included into US laws

“I could imagine that parts of … (an) organization are saying this makes sense, and other parts are saying we don’t think taking a stance makes sense.”

After September 2020, Apple’s main internal workplace conduct code, reviewed by Reuters, will include references to caste in the equal employment opportunity and anti-harassment sections.

Apple said that it “changed language a couple of years ago to underline that we do not tolerate caste discrimination or harassment.” It further stated that employee training openly discusses caste.

“Our teams assess our policies, training, processes and resources on an ongoing basis to ensure that they are comprehensive,” it said. “We have a diverse and global team, and are proud that our policies and actions reflect that.”

In other news, IBM informed Reuters that it incorporated caste, which was previously in India-specific policy, to its worldwide discrimination standards after the Cisco complaint was filed, though it declined to provide a precise date or a reason for doing so.

According to the corporation, the only training that discusses caste is for managers in India.

Several firms, like Amazon, Dell, Facebook owner Meta, Microsoft, and Google, do not directly mention caste in their major global policy. Reuters examined each of the policies, some of which are only available to staff.

The businesses all informed that they have zero tolerance for caste discrimination and, with the exception of Meta, said such bias would fall under current policies prohibiting discrimination based on heritage and national origin.

Caste discrimination was outlawed in India more than 70 years ago, yet bias persists, according to recent studies, including one that found Dalits underrepresented in higher-paying positions. The debate over the hierarchy is heated in India and internationally, with the topic interwoven with religion, with some people claiming that discrimination is no longer common.

In recent years, government measures reserving spots for lower-caste students at prominent Indian colleges have helped many Indians get computer jobs in the West.

Some employee groups, notably the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) at Google’s parent firm, argue that explicitly including caste in corporate regulations would allow corporations to spend in areas such as data collecting and training at the same levels that they do to protect other groups.

“Significant caste discrimination exists in the United States,” said Mayuri Raja, a Google software engineer who is a member of the AWU and advocates for lower-caste colleagues.

In a petition reviewed by Reuters, over 1,600 Google employees urged that caste be included to the basic workplace code of conduct worldwide. The petition was addressed to CEO Sundar Pichai last month and resent this week after no reaction.

According to Google, caste prejudice falls under national origin, ancestry, and ethnic discrimination. It refused to expound on its policies.

It is not uncommon to include caste in a general code of conduct.

It will be introduced in July 2020 by the World Wide Web Consortium, an industry standards body based in Massachusetts. Over the last two years, California State University and the state Democratic Party have followed suit.

California’s employment regulator, the Civil Rights Department, added caste to its model equal employment opportunity policy for employers in May of this year. Nonetheless, Apple’s move, a $2.8 trillion giant with over 165,000 full-time employees worldwide, looms huge.

According to Apple’s fair hiring policy, the company “does not discriminate in recruiting, training, hiring, or promoting on the basis of” 18 factors, including “race, colour, ancestry, national origin, caste, religion, creed, age,” as well as disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

According to three employment attorneys, including Koray Bulut, a partner at Goodwin Procter, many businesses are afraid to go beyond the law with their core policies.

“Most companies simply quote from the federal and state statutes that list the protected categories,” Bulut said.

However, some businesses have gone further in secondary rules that govern limited operations or serve primarily as suggestions.

Caste is expressly stated in Dell’s Global Social Media Policy, as well as the Amazon sustainability team’s Global Human Rights Principles and Google’s supplier code of conduct.

Amazon and Dell both stated that they had started addressing caste in anti-bias presentations for at least some new hires outside of India. They declined to say when, why, or how extensively they added it, but Dell indicated it did so after the Cisco case was filed.

According to sources analysing some of the online training, the corporations’ presentations include explanations of caste as an unpleasant societal structure that exists in parts of the world, with the Dell material noting a recent case “from the headlines.”

Brown, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, predicts that the dispute over whether organisations should refer to caste will not be resolved soon.

“This is an issue that ultimately will be resolved by the courts,” he said. “The area right now is unsettled.”

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