The US state, which accommodates about 1.8 million people of South Asian descent, has consistently reported incidents of caste discrimination over the years.
The home turf of big tech companies, California has recorded a victory for all its caste-oppressed people as the California State Senate voted 34-1 to pass a legislation putting a ban on caste-based discrimination.
With Apple, Google, Meta and Cisco headquartered in Silicon Valley, along with offices of Amazon and Microsoft – California accommodates about 1.8 million people of South Asian descent. And has consistently reported incidents of caste discrimination over the years.
At least one in four Dalits in the US have faced verbal or physical assault, and two out of every three said that they have faced discrimination at work, as per The Equality Labs 2016 caste survey.
In 2020, a former employee of Cisco filed a lawsuit alleging caste discrimination at work. John Doe said he was treated differently, excluded from meetings and promotions, and subjected to offensive remarks and jokes because of his caste.
After the Cisco case was reported in 2020, as many as 250 Dalit employees from Google, Meta, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, and a dozen other organisations in Silicon Valley came forward to report discrimination, bullying, ostracisation, and even sexual harassment by colleagues who were from dominant caste. Additionally, 30 Dalit women engineers in Silicon Valley spoke of gender and caste bias in the tech industry.
Having worked in the tech space for more than two decades now, I can say this is a common problem faced by many workers from caste-oppressed communities. I had a very similar experience when my manager found out my caste. He went from praising my work to snubbing my valid suggestions in meetings, to humiliating me by saying “Don't touch this project as you are ill fated”. This was a direct reference to me being from an “untouchable caste”. I did not know how to report this issue to my American human resources department, as they had no awareness of what caste meant – and to complicate the issue further, I was on H1-B visa.
This is set to change with the California Caste Bill SB 403. The Bill, which was introduced by Senator Aisha Wahab in the Senate legislature, was unanimously passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 25 and the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 5. This comes months after Seattle became the first city in the US and outside South Asia to ban caste discrimination
People from South Asian origin who have migrated to different parts of the world, have carried along their caste identities – which has pervaded public life and translated into caste-based discrimination wherever South Asian population is concentrated.
Most of the tech companies have around 4-9 percent of South Asian origin workers, many of whom are migrants in the US. In its 2023 report, Google said 44.8 percent of its workers are Asian and 32.3 percent are in leadership positions.
The social privilege and access to resources at the disposal of dominant castes have led to many of them being elevated to leadership or managerial positions at tech companies. A good manager fosters a good working environment, but some show favouritism to certain employees or departments, or treat others unfairly.
Many of the managers from the dominant caste create a toxic environment to curtail the growth of employees when they find out that the employee is from a historically caste-oppressed community.
As a member of Californians for Caste Equity, a coalition of caste-oppressed organisations, unions, interfaith organisations, lawyers, and academicians, I applaud Senator Wahab for taking up this cause and working to add caste as a protected category to California's present discrimination policy.
The California Caste Bill SB 403 will bring more awareness towards caste-based discrimination and enable the human resources department of tech companies to understand the issue and tackle them efficiently. It will also come to the rescue of caste-oppressed people such as John Doe and thousands of people like me, who deserve the equal right to work, and to thrive at our workplaces.
The writer is a tech worker and the president of Ambedkar Association of North America.
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