Apple denouncing caste-based discrimination is an anomaly in Silicon Valley

·4 min read

Indians in the US are facing a two-fold caste problem: Discrimination is rampant, yet people don’t entirely understand it.

Two years ago, Apple updated its employee conduct policy to explicitly prohibit such partiality, Reuters reported yesterday (Aug. 15). The category was added alongside race, religion, gender, age, and ancestry.

This was done shortly after Cisco Systems was sued in June 2020: an engineer who belonged to a so-called lower caste accused two of his bosses—both claiming a “higher caste”—of stunting his career. While such discrimination is not strictly illegal in California, this case was a wake-up call. Tech giants can no longer get away with ignoring the problem.

Caste-based discrimination among Silicon Valley Indians

Established more than 3,000 years ago, the caste system divides Hindus into four main categories, ranking top to bottom as Brahmins (priests, teachers, and intellectuals), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (traders), and the Shudras (artisans and labourers).

This hierarchy almost always involved privileges and prestige reducing towards the lower levels.

To correct historical biases and create a level playing field for the traditionally disadvantaged, independent India’s constitution banned caste-based discrimination. The practice itself has, however, continued to dictate professional and social lives in the country.

And now, clearly, it has crossed borders, too.

In the weeks following the Cisco case, south Asian civil rights group Equality Labs received more than 250 unsolicited complaints from Dalits against colleagues at Google, Netflix, Amazon, and Facebook.

Dalits are members of a bunch of traditional social groups deemed so low that they were not even considered part of the caste system. They were “untouchable” till the social evil was banned in India—many still practice it, though—after independence.

The Dalits of Silicon Valley have often accused “higher caste” Hindus of using casteist slur against them, besides discriminating in the hiring and firing process. They also allege sexual harassment and attempts to out closeted Dalits.

What Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft, and Amazon are up to

Apple’s efforts are pronounced: Caste is referenced in the iPhone maker’s equal employment opportunity and anti-harassment sections since September 2020. The Cupertino-based firm’s training to staff explicitly mentions the problem, Reuters reported.

However, not every tech behemoth puts pen to paper: Meta, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon haven’t explicitly prohibited the practice. Some, though, have said that caste discrimination falls under “ancestry and national origin.”

The firms, however, did tell Reuters that they have zero tolerance for such prejudices. All but one—Meta—cited existing banned categories of discrimination.

Should Silicon Valley explicitly denounce caste?

Caste bias is a nuanced problem that companies are having a tough time tackling.

For instance, earlier this year, Google nixed a talk on caste bias by prominent caste equity activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan because some employees deemed it anti-Hindu. The company said it wanted to avoid “creating division and rancour” among employees. However, the Google manager who organised the talk resigned alleging that the cancellation was not an isolated incident but a “pattern” of suppression at the search giant.

“It was very troubling that Google News management could not discern disinformation and bigotry,” Soundararajan told NBC Asian America. “We are seeing people who have multiple protected classes weaponise language of equity to avoid confronting the systems that have given them privilege.”

At the same time, over 1,600 Google workers demanded the addition of caste to the main workplace code of conduct worldwide, the Reuters report said. They emailed CEO Sundar Pichai last month, and again last week after they failed to evoke a response the first time.

Some like Apple have gone above and beyond federal and state statutes. Others have written caste into secondary policies, according to Reuters. The Amazon sustainability team’s Global Human Rights Principles and Google’s code of conduct for suppliers are examples of the latter.

Yet, it remains a fine line since the legality is blurry.

“I could imagine that parts of...(an) organisation are saying this makes sense, and other parts are saying we don’t think taking a stance makes sense,” Kevin Brown, a University of South Carolina law professor studying caste issues, told Reuters.