Author Archives: Editor

Californian case of caste-based discrimination re-awakens the need for specific legislation in the West

28th July 2020

For those who doubt the existence of caste-based discrimination among the South Asian diaspora, a case in America has revealed just how insidious it is.

California regulators have decided to sue Cisco Systems over alleged caste discrimination perpetrated by two Indian-American employees against a third. Whilst US employment law doesn’t include caste discrimination, The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) has filed a lawsuit against the tech company, claiming that they did not act on the victim’s report of harassment. Cisco have argued that caste discrimination is not illegal, but perhaps this might encourage a landmark ruling, much like that of Tirkey v. Chandhok in the UK (which was the first piece of case law on caste-based discrimination), to press for changes to the law. At the moment, the DFEH will sue for violations to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (arguing that Dalits’ darker skin represents colour discrimination) and to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (which argues that as caste discrimination is primarily a Hindu practice, it is covered under religious discrimination).

The case involves two Cisco supervisors, both ‘so called higher-caste’ Indians. The first supervisor ‘outed’ one of the employees as a Dalit and told colleagues that he attended the Indian Institute of Technology through affirmative action (reservation). When the victim contacted the HR department wanting to file a discrimination complaint, the supervisor, in effect, demoted the claimant. Furthermore, the supervisor went on to disparage this employee to his co-workers and suggested that they avoid him, leaving him isolated. Then, having stepped down from his role, the supervisor’s replacement ‘continued to discriminate, harass and retaliate’ the employee, and gave him assignments that were impossible to complete. Consequently, he was forced to receive less pay and fewer opportunities.

The Californian government have been brave in making this move: it has demonstrated how serious it is about discrimination in the work place, and sends a clear message to the Indian diaspora that caste discrimination can’t be hidden behind religious or ethnic discrimination.

The US-based Ambedkar International Center (AIC) has written to the DFEH, explaining that this case is just ‘a tip of the iceberg’. In India, Dalits make up approximately 16% of the population, but as the AIC state: ‘After surviving through mental and physical agony, less than 2% [of] untouchables rise to level to get an opportunity to come to the US. These 2% [of] migrant Indians are very talented, hardworking and sharp techies, majorly from the top institutions of India.’

However, the press that the Cisco debacle has created has had some positive effects: ‘We have people from 30 companies reaching out and more folks are coming on board as they try to move their companies to address this issue proactively, given how large the scope and the scale of the problem is,’ said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Equality Labs in the US. In the absence of legislation at this particular moment in time, perhaps the onus should be on encouraging companies to include caste in their inclusion and diversity policies, so that at least employees are aware of what is considered unacceptable behaviour.

DSN-UK director Meena Varma commented on the case in, stating that ‘In countries like the UK and the US, anti-caste laws are necessary because we cannot change a casteist mindset overnight, but we can we can try and change casteist behaviour … people will have to follow the rule of law. That’s why there needs to be legislative protection in these countries.’

The question is how this case can also encourage change in the UK. Several cases have been brought to the courts, but because of the nature of our legal system, a number have been dropped due to the high costs involved, or because a settlement has been reached before the case could be concluded, or the case has been dismissed because there is no clear legislation on caste-based discrimination and so must be tried using different parameters such as racial discrimination, which do not address the unique issue of caste. If there were a body of successfully tried cases from countries with South Asian diaspora, governments might finally recognise the existence of caste-based discrimination and adopt a more accepting attitude towards making statutory changes. We are unlikely to be fortunate enough to have a local government body that takes action as the State of California has, but it would be a significant win if we did.

Despite legal protection in India against caste discrimination, Dalits still have difficulty in entering the higher echelons of power. Thus emigration to the West is seen as an opportunity to succeed on a level playing field, where caste should, supposedly, be irrelevant. The mindset of superiority from a minority of dominant caste diaspora has no place in the US or the UK, however it appears that only specific legislation against caste-based discrimination will give Dalits the global protection that they need on the scale that they need.

DfID and FCO to be merged

9th July 2020

On 16 June Boris Johnson announced that the Department for International Development (DfID) will be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), under the rebranded department name of the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. Due to be formally established in September, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will head up the new department while International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan will remain only until the merger is completed.

Why does this matter?

Well, let’s start with the fact that no consultation was made with the UK’s international development and humanitarian sector, who firmly believe that DfID is the most transparent and effective way for spending Official Development Assistance (ODA) for the benefit of the poorest. If that wasn’t quite enough, the government have ignored the recommendations of independent aid scrutiny bodies, including the International Development Select Committee. While DfID has an excellent reputation as an independent body that uses its expertise to make significant improvements globally (including on education, health, social services, environmental protection, sanitation and most recently assisting in dealing with the current Covid-19 pandemic), the FCO has been criticised for using UK aid to advance security and diplomatic interests, rather than directing it to reduce poverty. And herein lies the problem: transparency. In the 2018 Aid Transparency Index, DfID received a ‘very good’ rating of 90.6, whilst the FCO received a ‘poor’ rating of just 34.3. This year’s figures have kept DfID as ‘very good’, coming 9th out of 47 organisations; in contrast, the FCO, although lifted to ‘fair’, comes out in 38th position

The government has argued that the UK’s aid policy is too detached from its foreign policy and that the commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid has left DfID with a budget five times that of the FCO. Furthermore, the PM believes that the money should be spent more strategically to protect British values from overseas threats and prevent funding being given to potentially corrupt countries. On the other side of the argument, there is concern (including from MPs on all sides of the political spectrum) that the more political FCO will have a negative effect on the specific poverty reduction goals and work on the ground that DfID so successfully achieves, by diverting resources to support British interests based on political strategy.

Having worked with DfID for many years, DSN-UK is extremely concerned by the change. They have been champions in addressing social exclusion and the rights of the poorest minorities, notably in India, and have been open to allowing input from us and other NGOs. In 2005 we pressed the department to include caste discrimination in their programme on Social Exclusion, particularly in regard to Nepal and India, and were delighted that joint initiatives with the World Bank ensured support for Dalit NGOs. More recently, in 2016, we made a joint submission with the Asia Dalit Rights

Forum to have ensure that the issue of caste-based discrimination was included in their Sustainable Development Goals. Our relationship with DfID has allowed us to make a genuine difference to the lives of Dalits.

Taking the opportunity during the 22 June House of Lords question time on Covid-19 and supply chains, Baroness Northover, asked a particularly pertinent question: ‘My Lords, with the downgrading of DfID, how do the Government now plan to enhance the rights of the many vulnerable women and girls working in supply chains, or the Dalits of both sexes in south Asia?’ Disappointingly, the only reply was that the department was not being downgraded. DSN-UK is proud to have put its name to a statement released by BOND and signed by 191 organisations, which clearly states our objection to this merger. We believe that DfID’s independence is crucial and that the UK is at risk of losing our internationally renowned position on overseas aid and consequently our ability to bring our influence to bear on the most pressing matters that the global community faces.

UK’s Largest Indian Dating Website removes Question on Skin Tone

23rd June 2020

We reported in our spring newsletter that an Asian dating website was responsible by means of an algorithm to exclude Scheduled Castes (Dalits) from certain matches., a marriage site for the Indian community in the UK, the US and elsewhere, is back in the headlines again.

Originally, subscribers to the website were asked how dark or light their skin tone was – it is commonly believed that a darker skin tone denotes a lower caste and that lighter skin tones are more desirable. Following the Black Lives Matter movement, a subscriber from the US started a petition to remove the colour filter from the website, and after garnering more than 1500 signatures in just 14 hours, decided to remove it.

While this is a victory, it is disturbing that several subscribers have reported that previously they were rejected by potential matches, based on their skin tone. Although the severity of caste discrimination suffered amongst the Diaspora in the west is milder in comparison to those in South Asia, there is obviously much that still has to be done to tackle both conscious and unconscious bias.

On the website, it is still possible to search for partners by caste, and while many members in the UK add that caste is no bar to finding a suitable partner, not all of them do. For those who refuse to put their caste down, we do not know whether this is embarrassment or concern over not finding someone should they mention that they are a member of a Scheduled Caste, or whether it is because caste is genuinely not an issue that concerns them when looking for a spouse.

Whether we like it or not, caste remains an identifier for some in the diaspora – and skin tone just another method of making a judgement.

6 States in India Change their Labour Laws at Significant Cost to Workers and their Rights

16th June 2020

Labour laws are considered to be one of the most important tools in protecting the workforce from exploitation, ensuring anything from the maximum number of working hours to health and safety at work. Why, then, are some states in India throwing out the rulebooks?

Supposedly this is in response to assisting the economy in recovering from the Covid-19 crisis, while some have suggested that it may be an attempt to steal back some of the cheap labour market from China. Regardless of the reason, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab are all making changes that contravene the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) conventions. The government in Uttar Pradesh is aiming for a three-year exemption from current labour laws, including those that relate to settling industrial disputes, occupational safety, and health and working conditions. Trades unions, contract workers and migrant labourers are also in their firing line. In many of the affected states working shifts will be increased from 8 hours to 12 hours, and the working week increased from 48 hours to 72 hours a week. Furthermore, no inspections will be carried out if the firm has less than 50 workers.

During the current crisis, labour net-importing states have seen a shortage of workers, which has driven up wages. Consequently, some states have attempted to restrict migrant labour from returning home – the Gujarat government is even considering allowing factories to start disciplinary proceedings against workers who have returned to their home state, despite this being against Article 23 of the Constitution, which provides a ‘right against exploitation’.

After spending the early years of the 21st century attempting to amend and modernise labour laws, India has taken a massive step backwards in protecting the rights of workers. Criticism has been levelled at the country not only by a number of trades unions who have been organising protests, but internationally as well. DSN-UK fully endorses the statement issued by the Ethical Trading Initiative calling on its members to take steps to increase dialogue, and it is hoped that the British government will voice its concerns to India and ensure that workers’ rights remain inviolable.

The Disproportionate Effects of Covid-19 on Dalits

7th May 2020

The UK is mostly an incredibly generous population – even in this time of crisis where job uncertainty is rife and financial security is a thing of the past, we continue to donate not just to causes in the UK, but also those across the world who require help to deal with Covid-19 and its implications.

However, in caste-affected countries, history has taught us that when it comes to distributing aid, Dalits are often those most in need and those most often denied access to relief and state benefits. They may already be living in highly crowded spaces with limited access to clean water and sanitation; are the first to lose their jobs as daily wage labourers, home-based workers or modern slaves; live hand-to-mouth with no savings or food to spare; and have difficulty accessing healthcare. With higher rates of malnutrition, they generally have a weaker immune system and are therefore at higher risk of being severely affected by the virus.

So, as members of the public, what can we do to ensure that assistance is given to those most in need? The simple answer is to put pressure on governments and companies with global supply chains in caste-affected countries.

Governments can be encouraged to comply with the UN core human rights treaties and ILO fundamental conventions, including providing support to high-risk communities such as migrant workers, many of whom are Dalits. They can also put pressure on companies to act in a way that mitigates the impact of the crisis on vulnerable workers.

As far as companies are concerned, we can urge them to continue to pay wages where possible or provide suitable severance, especially where local governments cannot step in to assist. If they are able to provide support where needed for provision of food, clean water and healthcare by cooperating with suppliers, this should also be done. Perhaps mostly importantly, they should insist that their suppliers conform to the WHO’s recommendations on health and safety guidance to protect workers from Covid-19.

At some point, the world will come out of the crisis. However, once national recovery efforts are underway, it is essential that governments ensure that Dalits and other minorities are included in the process to rebuild their countries. The disproportionate effect on Dalits of both lockdown and vulnerability to the virus itself must be confronted, so that the most marginalised are protected. A number of excellent reports have been prepared by Hope for Justice and Anti-Slavery International that highlight just how much the vulnerable are open to further abuse in times such as these.

As many of us sit at home wondering how to use up an excess of time, writing a letter to the UK Department for International Development, the Department for International Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, registering concern about the plight of Dalits, can make a cumulative difference. We have the opportunity to reshape the world – so raise your voice and make sure that our government is reminded that equality does not exist for all, but can do with the right international pressures.

Ethical Trade Initiative’s Base Code Guidance: Caste in Global Supply Chains

27th March 2020

Ethical Trade Initiative’s Base Code Guidance: Caste in Global Supply Chains

The ETI Base Code Guidance: Caste in Global Supply Chains was published by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) in September 2019, developed in conjunction with DSN-UK and IDSN. It shines a light on the abuses that often go on unnoticed in supply chains and what companies can do to recognise and rectify the situation. Clearly set out, with plenty of facts and figures to demonstrate the severity of caste-based discrimination as a major business and human rights issue, the Base Code Guidance is the result of many months of extremely hard work.

The report is keen to acknowledge that there are many ethical businesses, trade unions and NGOs who are doing their best to adhere to current guidelines, but are unaware of the issue of caste in supply chains. As a result, readers are taken through a summary of definitions, the relevance to international businesses, those sectors that see the biggest abuses, and how caste intersects all nine of the base code guidance directives. The report concludes with four steps provided to address the problem and a number of case studies. A number of annexes complete the document, and aside from the usual notes and references, there is a list of other tools and guidances, a summary of international legislation and a more in-depth look at the legal framework in India, Pakistan and Nepal.

The key sectors focused on are carpet weaving (where about half the workers are subjected to forced labour); leather work (where largely Dalits and Muslims are employed and suffer unacceptable health risks); stone and minerals (which has a particularly high level of child bonded labour in synthetic gem manufacture in Tamil Nadu, almost all of which are Dalits or Adivasis); garments (in which Dalit women and girls are trapped under the ‘Sumangali’ scheme whereby they work for a number of years, supposedly to earn a lump sum for their ‘dowry’ at the end of their tenure); agriculture (which employs more bonded labour than all other industries in India combined); and construction (where child and bonded labour are particularly high in the brick kiln industry and workers are threatened, punished and sometimes murdered if they try to escape).

The document was launched in Copenhagen on 12 November through a seminar on vulnerable workers, organised by IDSN, the Danish Ethical Trading Initiative (DIEH) and ETI in the UK, with Peter McCallister, ETI’s Director remarking that ‘caste underpins so many elements of vulnerability that we must engage with caste issues if we want to address vulnerability’.

If you or anyone you know has business dealings in the global supply chain, particularly in South Asia, please pass on the link to this incredibly important document.

Dalit Solidarity Network UK Launches New Look Website

18th February 2020

We are delighted to introduce our new website: The DSN-UK team have been working hard over the last few months to ensure that the new site is easier to navigate and has a more contemporary appearance, with the help of designers Eighth Day. Divided into categories, you can now explore further under the main titles of Caste Discrimination, Caste in the UK, What We Do, Take Action and News. Whether you want to find out about caste discrimination globally or are more focused on how you can change things here in the UK, the new website can direct you to a letter you can write to your local MP, a leaflet that can be downloaded to disseminate information or resources to help you understand the issues better.

It will also now be easier to donate to the cause via a dedicated button that appears on every page. We will be keeping both the UK and International News sections updated and will add to theRaise Awareness and Resources sections as new material becomes available both from ourselves and other organisations working in this area. As usual, you can also send us messages via ourContact page, whether it be to provide feedback, report instances of caste-based discrimination or ask for further information or expertise. We do hope that you will also become a member orJoin our mailing list if you have not done so already.

We hope that you enjoy the new look!