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OAKLAND, Calif., Aug 15 (Reuters) – U.S. tech giants are taking a modern crash course in India’s ancient caste system, with Apple ( AAPL.O ) emerging as an early policy leader to free Silicon Valley from a rigid hierarchy that has segregated Indians for generations.
Apple, the world’s largest publicly traded company, updated its general employee conduct policy about two years ago to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on caste, which it added alongside existing categories such as race, religion, gender, age and ancestry
The inclusion of the new category, which was not previously reported, goes beyond US discrimination laws, which do not explicitly prohibit casteism.
The update came after the tech sector, which counts India as its top source of skilled foreign workers, received a wake-up call in June 2020 when California’s employment regulator sued Cisco Systems ( CSCO.O ) on behalf of a low-caste engineer who accused two upper-caste bosses of blocking his career.
Cisco, which denies wrongdoing, says an internal investigation found no evidence of discrimination and that some of the allegations are baseless because caste is not a legally “protected class” in California. This month, an appeals panel rejected the network company’s bid to take the case to private arbitration, meaning a public court case could come next year. Read more
The dispute – the first US labor lawsuit over alleged casteism – has forced Big Tech to confront a millennia-old hierarchy where Indians’ social standing has been based on family lineage, from the “priestly” class higher than the Brahmins to the Dalits, shunned as “untouchables” and destined for domestic work.
Since the lawsuit was filed, several activist groups and employees have begun seeking updated US discrimination legislation and have also called on tech companies to change their own policies to help fill the gap and deter casteism .
Their efforts have produced patchy results, according to a Reuters review of the policy of the US industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of workers in India.
“I’m not surprised that the policies are inconsistent because that’s pretty much what you’d expect when the law is unclear,” said Kevin Brown, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies caste issues. citing uncertainty among executives as to whether caste would ultimately be. make it into the US statutes.
“I could imagine parts of … (an) organization saying this makes sense, and other parts saying we don’t think taking a stand makes sense.”
Apple’s main internal workplace conduct policy, which was seen by Reuters, added a reference to caste in the equal employment opportunity and anti-harassment sections after September 2020 .
Apple confirmed that it “updated the language a couple of years ago to reinforce that we prohibit discrimination or harassment based on caste.” He added that the training given to staff also explicitly mentions caste.
“Our teams evaluate our policies, training, processes and resources on an ongoing basis to ensure they are comprehensive,” he said. “We have a diverse and global team, and we are proud that our policies and actions reflect this.”
Elsewhere in technology, IBM told Reuters it added caste, which was already in India-specific policies, to its global discrimination rules after Cisco’s lawsuit was filed, though he declined to give a specific date or a rationale.
The only IBM training that mentions caste is for managers in India, the company added.
Several companies do not specifically reference caste in their main global policy, including Amazon ( AMZN.O ), Dell ( DELL.N ), Facebook owner Meta ( META.O ), Microsoft ( MSFT.O ) and Google (GOOGL.O) . Reuters reviewed each of the policies, some of which are only released internally to employees.
All the companies told Reuters they have zero tolerance for caste bias and, apart from Meta, which did not elaborate, said such bias would fall under existing prohibitions on discrimination based on categories such as ancestry and politics of national origin.
Caste discrimination was outlawed in India more than 70 years ago, but the bias persists, according to several studies in recent years, including one that found Dalits were underrepresented in higher-paying jobs. The hierarchy debate is contentious in India and abroad, with the issue intertwined with religion, and some people say discrimination is now rare.
Government policies reserving seats for lower caste students in top Indian universities have helped many land tech jobs in the West in recent years.
Reuters spoke to about two dozen Dalit tech workers in the United States who said discrimination had followed them abroad. They said indicia of caste, including their surnames, hometowns, diets or religious practices, had caused peers to ignore them in hiring, promotions and social activities.
Reuters could not independently verify the allegations from the workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they feared damaging their careers. Two said they had quit their jobs because of what they saw as casteism.
Some staff groups, including parent company Google’s Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), say explicit mention of caste in corporate rules would open the door for companies to invest in areas such as data collection and training at the same level as they do to protect other groups.
“There is significant caste discrimination in the United States,” said Mayuri Raja, a Google software engineer who is a member of the AWU and an advocate for lower-caste colleagues.
More than 1,600 Google workers demanded the addition of caste to the main workplace code of conduct worldwide in a petition, seen by Reuters, that they emailed to CEO Sundar Pichai last month and which they sent last week after not receiving a response.
Google reiterated to Reuters that caste discrimination came under national origin, ancestry and ethnic discrimination. He declined to elaborate further on his policies.
Adding caste to a general code of conduct is not unusual.
The World Wide Web Consortium, an industry standards body based in part in Massachusetts, introduced it in July 2020. California State University and the state Democratic Party have followed suit for the past two years .
In May of this year, California’s employment regulator, the Department of Civil Rights, added caste to its equal employment opportunity policy for employers.
Yet the move by Apple, a $2.8 trillion behemoth with more than 165,000 full-time employees worldwide, looms large.
The iPhone maker’s fair hiring policy now states that Apple “does not discriminate in hiring, training, hiring or promotion on the basis of” 18 categories, including “race, color, ancestry, national origin, caste, religion, creed , age”. plus disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Conversely, many employers are hesitant to go beyond the laws with their primary policies, according to three labor lawyers, including Koray Bulut, a partner at Goodwin Procter.
“Most companies simply cite the federal and state statutes that list the protected categories,” Bulut said.
Some companies, however, have gone further with secondary policies that govern limited operations or serve only as loose guidelines.
Caste is explicitly written into Dell’s global social media policy, for example, and Amazon’s sustainability team’s global human rights principles and Google’s code of conduct for suppliers.
Amazon and Dell confirmed that they had also started mentioning caste in anti-bias filings for at least some new hires outside India. They declined to specify when, why and to what extent they made the addition, though Dell said it made the change after Cisco’s lawsuit was filed.
The companies’ filings include explanations of caste as an unwanted social structure that exists in parts of the world, according to a Reuters review of some of the online training, with Dell’s material referring to a recent lawsuit “from of the holders”.
John-Paul Singh Deol, senior employment attorney at Dhillon Law Group in San Francisco, said that merely including caste in the training and guidelines amounts to “paying lip service” to the issue because its legal force is questionable.
That characterization was rejected by Janine Yancey, CEO of Emtrain, which sells anti-bias training to about 550 employers, and a longtime employment attorney.
“No company wants to have employee turnover, lack of productivity and conflict, that’s not good for business,” he said.
However, making explicit reference to caste would likely invite more complaints from HR alleging bias, Yancey added.
“Anytime you call something out specifically, you’re exponentially increasing your caseload,” he said.
Apple declined to say whether any complaints had been filed under its caste provision.
South Carolina law professor Brown doesn’t expect an immediate resolution to the debate over whether companies should reference caste.
“This is an issue that will ultimately be decided by the courts,” he said. “The area is currently unsettled.”
Reporting by Paresh Dave; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington and Sudarshan Varadhan in New Delhi; Editing by Kenneth Li and Pravin Char
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