Equality Labs’ Thenmozhi Soundararajan called the moment an “incredible victory in the battle for caste civil rights".

White building with black sign saying Google
Atom Google Thursday, April 15, 2021 - 16:03

The Alphabet Workers’ Union, the employees union of the parent company of Google and several subsidiaries, said it stood in support of the lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against Cisco for discrimination on the basis of caste. This move was hailed by Equality Labs, an organisation working against all forms of discrimination in tech including caste-based discrimination.

The historic lawsuit was filed in July 2020 after a Dalit Indian-American employee alleged they were discriminated against by two managers, on the basis of caste. The State of California alleged that a major tech-industry employer violated civil rights laws by discriminating against a worker of Indian origin because he was born into a lower caste.

In its statement, the Alphabet Workers’ Union said it marked the first time in US history that any institution was being held accountable for caste-based discrimination.

“Caste-oppressed workers face many barriers throughout the tech industry, including at Alphabet. Caste is a system of oppression analogous to racial discrimination and is rampant throughout many American institutions. We support tech workers around the world who are speaking up about casteism and hostile workplaces,” the union said in its statement.

It further added that the company’s anti-discrimination policy prohibits caste discrimination in India but not in the US. “Alphabet can lead the industry and become the first technology company to add caste as a protected category globally,” the statement said.

It added that CEO Sundar Pichai made a commitment to addressing racial equity, and the company must commit to caste equity with the same urgency. “Recognising and addressing caste-based discrimination will benefit Alphabet, its workers, and its users worldwide,” it said. 

It also called for caste to be recognised as a protected class by the US government and be included in anti-harassment policies in the tech industry. “The fight for the civil rights of caste-oppressed people is a workers’ fight,” it said. 

Responding to Alphabet’s statement, on Ambedkar Jayanti, Equality Labs’ Executive Director Thenmozhi Soundararajan said she cannot overstate the moment’s importance and is an “incredible victory in the battle for caste civil rights”. 

She added that this is the largest workers statement in the tech sector, and affirmed that the battle against caste is a workers’ rights issue. She said that since last year, Equality Labs has received hundreds of testimonials from Dalit and Bahujan tech employees in the US, “attesting to the microaggressions, shame, and blatant casteist violence they have endured in the industry”.

It is critical that Alphabet’s workers in the US are ensured caste discrimination protections, she said, adding that it should have caste-competent HR departments should people choose to report instances.

“Caste is so deeply alive in the diaspora and it impacts so many parts of the Indian American experience. Our report showed the prevalence of caste discrimination with 1 in 4 Dalits experience physical assaults, 2 out 3 work place discrimination, and 1 in 3 discrimination in education. Our data and personal stories of caste oppressed people point to this urgent problem,” Thenmozhi said in her statement.

She added that tech companies must listen to worker demands and pass caste protections and make it a protected category. 

“We hope this first step will open the dialogue in Alphabet to give caste the serious attention it deserves and make it an institutional priority to build caste protections, competency, and investments to not only create a caste equitable workplace but for them to be on the right side of history,” she added.

A 2018 survey by Equality Labs, one of the only ones of its kind, had found that 26% of Dalits surveyed experienced physical assault because of their caste. Over half of those surveyed were afraid of their caste identity being known, and almost 60% of Dalits surveyed said they experienced caste-based derogatory jokes or remarks. 

A 2003 study by the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. found that only 1.5% of Indian immigrants in the US were from lower castes. 

Caste-based protections in the US are also important because Indians get a lion’s share of H-1B nonimmigrant work visas, many of whom work in tech. In 2019, out of 1,88,123 visas that were issued, 1,31,549 (69.9%) went to Indians. In 2018, too, Indians got 69.9% of H-1B visas. 

Indian Americans reportedly make up 1% of the US population, and according to the book The Other One Percent: Indians in America, Indian Americans own a third of all startups in Silicon Valley.

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