Following news of State of California suing Cisco Systems last month (July) over caste discrimination practised in the company (‘California sues Cisco alleging job discrimination against Indian-American based on caste system‘), more employees of US tech companies are coming forward to complain about alleged caste discrimination against them too.
In the Cisco case, an Indian-American engineer working at the company’s headquarters in San Jose complained to state authorities that he was being discriminated by his Indian immigrant team mates said to be of higher caste. The state authorities found sufficient evidence to proceed with a lawsuit against Cisco.
The lawsuit noted that the ancestry of the Indian-American employee is of Dalit “untouchable” caste and that he has a darker complexion than the rest of his non-Dalit Indian immigrant team mates. The “higher caste supervisors and co-workers imported the discriminatory system’s practices into their team and Cisco’s workplace,” the lawsuit said. It added that the engineer was allegedly “expected to accept a caste hierarchy within the workplace where [he] held the lowest status within the team.”
The State of California alleged that Cisco’s treatment of the Indian-American employee violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. “It is unacceptable for workplace conditions and opportunities to be determined by a hereditary social status determined by birth,” said Kevin Kish, California’s director of the fair-employment department.
Two men who were Cisco managers with higher-caste status, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, are named in the suit for harassing the employee. The employee received less pay and, other inferior terms and conditions of employment. When the employee opposed those “unlawful practices, contrary to the traditional order between the Dalit and higher castes, [the] defendants retaliated against him,” the lawsuit said. The employee also alleged that he was denied opportunities for advancement.
Under India’s centuries old caste system, people are supposed to be ranked at birth, and that impacts every aspect of their lives, including where they work, who they marry, and access to education.
More stepping forward to reveal caste discrimination
In the weeks since the lawsuit was announced, more than 250 people from the supposedly Dalit caste from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, and dozens of others in Silicon Valley have come forward to report discrimination, bullying, ostracization, and even sexual harassment allegedly by their colleagues who are higher-caste Indians.
The Dalit advocacy group Equality Labs has recorded at least the following number of alleged caste discrimination complaints after the lawsuit was announced:
- 33 complaints at Facebook
- 20 complaints at Google
- 18 complaints at Microsoft
- 14 complaints at Amazon
- 24 more complaints at Cisco
There were also complaints from employees at Twitter, Dell, Netflix, Apple, Uber, and Lyft — as well dozens more complaints from a range of smaller Silicon Valley companies and some companies outside the technology sector.
The complaints included alleged discrimination in hiring, a toxic workplace culture, sexual harassment, caste slurs, demotions, and even firings based solely on their Dalit status and their superiors being of a higher caste.
Director of Equality Labs, Thenmozhi Soundarajan, said that inside many tech companies, it’s not unusual to find all-Indian teams, where Dalits can be subject to caste-based discrimination, which limits their opportunities.
“It’s kind of like the mob,” Soundarajan said. “You are not up against one bad apple; you are up against the whole network, and that’s what’s so challenging and why it’s been so difficult for people to come forward.”
“The HR departments in so many of these companies just are not culturally competent enough about the issues of caste to even understand the recording of these issues,” he lamented.
It has been suggested that higher-caste Indians have formed established powerful cliques within many of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies. To survive, Dalits would hide their identity and even use fake names to get work. One Dalit said, “If I use my real name, I get excluded from the interviews.”
Ingrained in culture
India outlawed discrimination by caste in 1950. At the same time, the notion of “untouchability” was removed and the government introduced a program of affirmative action to ensure members of lower castes were given educational opportunities as well as a fixed minimum percentage of government jobs.
Despite these efforts, caste discrimination still plagues India today. Just last month, a mob of more than a dozen people brutally beat up a Dalit man with sticks in the South Indian state of Karnataka just because he touched a scooter belonging to an upper-caste person.
Caste is ingrained in India’s culture, and it’s been long expected that the system would travel with Indians as they migrate abroad. Prof Kevin Brown at the Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, who has been traveling to India to study caste discrimination for 25 years, concurred, “There’s no question that when Indians come to the United States, they carry their culture with them, and the overwhelming majority of them are higher-caste.”
In the case of Singapore, it’s not known if any of the Indian nationals working here have brought their caste culture with them.
In any case, many Dalits in U.S. are living in fear, hiding their caste identity because revealing it would lead to harassment, firing, or social exclusion.