Activists in the U.S. are working to add caste as a protected identity category at the level of workplace and university

Harvard University’s move to include caste as a protected category shows how labour unions can take on this rampant discrimination — and win

December 17, 2021 01:21 pm | Updated July 06, 2022 12:41 pm IST

Outrage: Demonstrators during a protest march to express solidarity with Rohit Vemula in New Delhi, 2016.

Outrage: Demonstrators during a protest march to express solidarity with Rohit Vemula in New Delhi, 2016.

In 2010, a senior Indian bureaucrat was quoted in the news as saying, “How can anyone seriously suggest that India’s fight against caste based discrimination will be helped by international attention on the issue?”

The comment was meant to oppose Dalit activists’ demand for caste discrimination to be officially recognised by the United Nations. India successfully prevented this UN recognition, but caste has not faded out of the international spotlight as officials may have hoped. A growing South Asian diaspora, especially in the U.S. — 90% of which is dominant-caste — has only made casteism one of India’s most visible global exports.

Activists in the U.S. are now working to add caste as a protected identity category, not at the UN, but at the level of workplace and university. The most recent win on this front comes from Harvard, where the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU) successfully added caste as a protected category in their contract with the richest university in the world.

Beyond bias

Harvard isn’t the first university to recognise caste; Brandeis (Massachusetts) did it in 2019, while the University of California, Davis, and Colby College (Maine) did it earlier this year. What is significant about Harvard’s move, though, is that it includes caste not in a university policy, a student handbook or an employee code of conduct but in a worker-negotiated, legally-enforceable labour union contract.

Including caste in a union struggle correctly recognises it as a system that has long conferred material advantage and disadvantage beyond just “prejudice” or “bias”. A 2016 survey by Equality Labs found that 60% of Dalit respondents had experienced caste-based denigration through jokes and slurs; 67% had experienced caste discrimination at their workplaces. Attacks on Dalits’ dignity, then, seemed to go hand in hand with attacks on their livelihood.

Workers at the helm

Recent high-profile cases have highlighted caste as a livelihood issue. In 2020, dominant-caste Indians at IT conglomerate Cisco

A Blue Shirt Rally organised by various Ambedkarite organisations in Coimbatore in 2020.

A Blue Shirt Rally organised by various Ambedkarite organisations in Coimbatore in 2020.

were revealed to have discriminated against a Dalit co-worker who was given “the lowest status within a team of higher-caste colleagues, receiving less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment.” Since then, Dalit women at Apple, Google, and Microsoft have come forward with similar accounts of discrimination.

Beyond Silicon Valley, there have been news reports of egregious abuses such as caste-based slavery in a New Jersey temple, untouchability in a California restaurant, and the ostracisation of Dalit students at universities across the U.S. Such caste discrimination has a real cost. In Equality Labs’ survey, over 30% of Dalit households reported earning less than $24,999 per year while the same percentage of Brahmin households made between $100,000 and $249,999 per year.

Crucial win

If caste is a labour problem, then our efforts to combat casteism must put workers at the helm of any proposed solution. This is why where caste protections are added might be even more important than the addition itself. Adding caste to a company policy is fundamentally different from adding it to a labour contract. The former is enforced at the whim of employers; the latter is wielded as a weapon of workers.

The word ‘caste’ appearing in Cisco’s internal policy could hardly be expected to prevent discrimination; it is not like dominant-caste people checked the employee handbook before mistreating their colleague. Companies, too, rarely bother to check their policies before declaring, as Cisco did, that their internal investigation found no evidence of discrimination. In short, it is not enough to improve non-discrimination language without changing who has the power to enforce that language.

This is where Harvard’s win becomes crucial. As a worker-led union, HGSU has the power to bring forward contract violations — now including caste discrimination — which the university is obligated to address on a set timeline. If the university fails to do so or if its investigation process is biased, the union can bring the case to a neutral mediator or arbitrator. Unlike most workers’ solitary legal battles, HGSU’s complainants do not have to bear hefty legal fees or battle a powerful corporation alone. Further, if the union wins the case in arbitration, the result would include a remedy, possibly including financial reparation for wages or opportunities lost.

Most importantly, this process at HGSU of enforcing caste protection is meant to be carried out by fellow workers; it does not count on the benevolence of bosses. If formal processes fail to work at any stage, these mobilised workers can exercise their collective leverage over their bosses to win just outcomes for each other.

Building on the precedent from Harvard, union struggles across the U.S. can become significant tools in the anti-caste arsenal, especially in industries with large South Asian workforces (tech, hospitality, higher education). The Alphabet Workers’ Union at Google is already trying to include caste as part of their platform of demands. In personal communications, union activists across U.S. universities have indicated a desire to follow suit.

HGSU’s win builds on something activists and scholars have known for decades: that caste is, and has always been, a bread and butter issue that is about land, labour, wages, and access to a dignified life. Harvard workers add to this received wisdom simply by showing that if caste is about livelihoods, then the future of the anti-caste struggle, in industries ranging from tech to sanitation, in India and abroad, must be rooted in workers’ collective power.

The writer is a Harvard-based journalist, labour organiser and scholar with research focusing on poverty, inequality and people’s movements.

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