Caste in California: Tech giants confront ancient Indian hierarchy

Customers shop at The Apple Store at the Towson Town Center mall, the first of the company's retail locations in the US where workers voted over the weekend to unionize. (Getty Images/AFP)
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Updated 15 August 2022
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Caste in California: Tech giants confront ancient Indian hierarchy

  • Wake up call in tech sector after a low-caste engineer at Cisco Systems accused two higher-caste bosses of blocking his career
  • Caste discrimination was outlawed in India over 70 years ago, yet bias persists, according to several studies in recent years

OAKLAND, California : America’s tech giants are taking a modern-day crash course in India’s ancient caste system, with Apple emerging as an early leader in policies to rid Silicon Valley of a rigid hierarchy that’s segregated Indians for generations.
Apple, the world’s biggest listed company, updated its general employee conduct policy about two years ago to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of caste, which it added alongside existing categories such as race, religion, gender, age and ancestry.
The inclusion of the new category, which hasn’t been previously reported, goes beyond US discrimination laws, which do not explicitly ban 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 on behalf of a low-caste engineer who accused two higher-caste bosses of blocking his career.
Cisco, which denies wrongdoing, says an internal probe 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 networking company’s bid to push the case to private arbitration, meaning a public court case could come as early as next year.
The dispute — the first US employment lawsuit about alleged casteism — has forced Big Tech to confront a millennia-old hierarchy where Indians’ social position has been based on family lineage, from the top Brahmin “priestly” class to the Dalits, shunned as “untouchables” and consigned to menial labor.
Since the suit was filed, several activist and employee groups have begun seeking updated US discrimination legislation — and have also called on tech companies to change their own policies to help fill the void and deter casteism.
Their efforts have produced patchy results, according to a Reuters review of policy across the US industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of workers from India.
“I am not surprised that the policies would be inconsistent because that’s almost what you would expect when the law is not clear,” said Kevin Brown, a University of South Carolina law professor studying caste issues, citing uncertainty among executives over whether caste would ultimately make it into US statutes.
“I could imagine that parts of ... (an) organization are saying this makes sense, and other parts are saying we don’t think taking a stance makes sense.”
Apple’s main internal policy on workplace conduct, which was seen by Reuters, added reference to caste in the equal employment opportunity and anti-harassment sections after September 2020.
Apple confirmed that it “updated language a couple of years ago to reinforce that we prohibit discrimination or harassment based on caste.” It added that training provided to staff also explicitly mentions caste.
“Our teams assess our policies, training, processes and resources on an ongoing basis to ensure that they are comprehensive,” it said. “We have a diverse and global team, and are proud that our policies and actions reflect that.”
Elsewhere in tech, IBM told Reuters that it added caste, which was already in India-specific policies, to its global discrimination rules after the Cisco lawsuit was filed, though it declined to give a specific date or a rationale.
IBM’s only 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, Dell , Facebook owner Meta, Microsoft and Google. Reuters reviewed each of the policies, some of which are only published internally to employees.
The companies all told Reuters that they have zero tolerance for caste prejudice and, apart from Meta which did not elaborate, said such bias would fall under existing bans on discrimination by categories such as ancestry and national originon policy.

Casteism outlawed in India
Caste discrimination was outlawed in India over 70 years ago, yet bias persists, according to several studies in recent years, including one that found Dalit people were underrepresented in higher-paying jobs. Debate over the hierarchy is contentious in India and abroad, with the issue intertwined with religion, and some people saying discrimination is now rare.
Government policies reserving seats for lower-caste students at 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 overseas. They said that caste cues, including their last names, hometowns, diets or religious practices, had led to colleagues bypassing them in hiring, promotions and social activities.
Reuters could not independently verify the allegations of the workers, who all spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they feared harming their careers. Two said they had quit their jobs over what they viewed as casteism.
Some staff groups, including the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) at Google’s parent company, say explicit mention of caste in corporate rules would open the door to companies investing in areas such as data collection and training at the same levels as they do to protect other groups.
“Significant caste discrimination exists in the United States,” said Mayuri Raja, a Google software engineer who is a member of the AWU and advocates for lower-caste colleagues.
Over 1,600 Google workers demanded the addition of caste to the main workplace code of conduct worldwide in a petition, seen by Reuters, which they emailed to CEO Sundar Pichai last month and resent last week after no response.
Google reiterated to Reuters that caste discrimination fell under national origin, ancestry and ethnic discrimination. It declined to elaborate further on its policies.

‘Not good for business’
Adding caste to a general code of conduct is not unheard of.
The World Wide Web Consortium, an industry standards body partly based in Massachusetts, introduced it in July 2020. California State University and the state Democratic Party have followed over the past two years.
In May this year, California’s employment regulator, the Civil Rights Department, added caste to its example equal employment opportunity policy for employers.
Yet the move by Apple, a $2.8 trillion behemoth with more than 165,000 full-time employees globally, looms large.
The iPhone maker’s fair hiring policy now states that Apple “does not discriminate in recruiting, training, hiring, or promoting on the basis of” 18 categories, including “race, color, ancestry, national origin, caste, religion, creed, age” plus disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.
By contrast, many employers are hesitant to go beyond laws with their primary policies, according to three employment attorneys including Koray Bulut, a partner at Goodwin Procter.
“Most companies simply quote from the federal and state statutes that list the protected categories,” Bulut said.
Some companies have, however, gone further in 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 in Amazon sustainability team’s Global Human Rights Principles and Google’s code of conduct for suppliers.
Amazon and Dell confirmed they had also begun mentioning caste in anti-bias presentations for at least some new hires outside India. They declined to specify when, why and how broadly they made the addition, though Dell said it made the change after the Cisco lawsuit was filed.
The companies’ presentations 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 the Dell material referencing a recent lawsuit “from the headlines.”
John-Paul Singh Deol, lead employment attorney at Dhillon Law Group in San Francisco, said that only including caste in training and guidelines amounted to “giving lip service” to the issue because their legal force is questionable.
This 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 just not good for business,” she said.
Yet explicitly referencing caste would likely invite an increased number of HR complaints alleging it as a bias, Yancey added. “Whenever you’re going to call out something specifically, you’re exponentially increasing your caseload,” she said.
Apple declined to say whether any complaints had been brought under its caste provision.
South Carolina law professor Brown expects no immediate resolution to the debate over of whether companies should reference caste.
“This is an issue that ultimately will be resolved by the courts,” he said. “The area right now is unsettled.” 

Decoder

Casteism

It is a millennia-old hierarchy in India where social position has been based on family lineage, from the top Brahmin “priestly” class to the Dalits, shunned as “untouchables” and consigned to menial labor. While caste discrimination was outlawed in India over 70 years ago (though studies say bias persists), it has gotten exported abroad in some way by members of the Indian diaspora. In the US, 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 on behalf of a low-caste engineer who accused two higher-caste bosses of blocking his career. 


Norway says ready to recognize a Palestinian state

Updated 5 sec ago
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Norway says ready to recognize a Palestinian state

“Norway stands ready to recognize the state of Palestine,” Store told a joint press conference with Sanchez
Sanchez is currently on a tour of Poland, Norway and Ireland this week to drum up support for the recognition of a Palestinian state

OSLO: Norway is ready to recognize a Palestinian state together with other countries, its prime minister said on Friday while hosting Spanish counterpart Pedro Sanchez, who is seeking support for the cause.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store told reporters that such a decision would need to be taken in close coordination with “like-minded countries.”
“Norway stands ready to recognize the state of Palestine,” Store told a joint press conference with Sanchez.
“We have not set a firm timetable,” Store added.
In November, Norway’s parliament adopted a government proposal for the country to be prepared to recognize an independent Palestinian state.
Norway also hosted Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at the beginning of the 1990s, which led to the Oslo Accords.
Sanchez is currently on a tour of Poland, Norway and Ireland this week to drum up support for the recognition of a Palestinian state, according to a Spanish government spokesperson.
Speaking alongside Store, Sanchez said Spain was “committed to recognizing Palestine as a state, as soon as possible, when the conditions are appropriate, and in a way that can have the most positive impact to the peace process.”
On March 22, Spain issued a statement with Ireland, Malta and Slovenia on the sidelines of an EU leaders summit, saying they were “ready to recognize Palestine” in a move that would happen when “the circumstances are right.”
Last week, Sanchez told reporters traveling with him on his Middle East tour that he hoped it would happen by the end of June.
Store on Friday said that he welcomed Sanchez’s initiative to consult among countries to “strengthen coordination.”
“We will intensify that coordination in the weeks to come,” Store said.
The Spanish leader has repeatedly angered Israel with his outspoken comments since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas.
The war in the Gaza Strip erupted after Hamas’s unprecedented attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,634 Palestinians, most of them women and children, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

Two arrested in India over Bengaluru cafe bombing

Updated 40 min 45 sec ago
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Two arrested in India over Bengaluru cafe bombing

  • The two suspects were hiding under false identities, National Investigation Agency says
  • Both are accused of orchestrating the March attack on cafe using a small homemade bomb

KOLKATA: Police in India arrested two men Friday accused of bombing a popular cafe in the southern tech hub Bengaluru last month, wounding nine people.

The National Investigation Agency said in a statement it had located the two suspects outside the eastern city of Kolkata, where they were hiding under false identities.

The men are accused of orchestrating the March attack on the Rameshwaram Cafe during its busy lunch hour using a small homemade bomb.

Bengaluru, known as “India’s Silicon Valley,” is home to many of the country’s top information technology companies and the capital of Karnataka state.

Karnataka is ruled by the opposition Congress party, which is often accused of being soft on extremism by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.


American missing in Russian-controlled east Ukraine, say local police

Updated 12 April 2024
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American missing in Russian-controlled east Ukraine, say local police

  • Bentley went missing on April 8
  • Mash cited his wife as saying he had gone to see if anyone needed help but had not returned

MOSCOW: Russell Bentley, an American who fought against Ukrainian forces, is missing in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, police there said on Friday, adding that a search was under way.
Bentley went missing on April 8, they said. The online news outlet Mash said he had disappeared after a district in the city of Donetsk was shelled by Ukrainian forces.
Mash cited his wife as saying he had gone to see if anyone needed help but had not returned. She was quoted as saying she had found his car with his baseball cap in it along with his smashed mobile phone and a pair of glasses.
Bentley, 64, is a self-declared supporter of Russian-backed forces in Ukraine.
He joined pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and used the military call-sign “Texas,” the Russian state news agency RIA reported.
It said Bentley had later swapped his gun for journalism and had worked with the Sputnik news agency, another state-owned entity, and obtained Russian citizenship.
In 2022, Rolling Stone magazine ran an interview with Bentley titled “The Bizarre Story of How a Hardcore Texas Leftist Became a Frontline Putin propagandist.”


Four teenagers detained in Germany over ‘Islamist attack’ plot

Updated 12 April 2024
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Four teenagers detained in Germany over ‘Islamist attack’ plot

  • The trio, aged 15 to 16, had also “committed to carrying out a crime — murder and manslaughter,” Duesseldorf prosecutors added
  • Investigators did not provide further details on the alleged plot, saying the inquiry was still under way

BERLIN: Police have detained two girls and two boys — all teenagers — in western Germany on suspicion that they were planning an Islamist attack, prosecutors said on Friday.
Three arrested in North Rhine-Westphalia state are “strongly suspected of planning an Islamist-motivated terror attack and of having committed to carrying it out,” Duesseldorf prosecutors said in a statement.
The trio, aged 15 to 16, had also “committed to carrying out a crime — murder and manslaughter,” Duesseldorf prosecutors added.
Separately, prosecutors in Stuttgart said a 16-year-old suspect is in custody on “suspicion that he was preparing a serious crime endangering the state.”
Investigators did not provide further details on the alleged plot, saying the inquiry was still under way.
But Germany’s biggest-selling daily Bild reported that the four youths were allegedly planning to carry out Molotov cocktail and knife attacks in the name of the Daesh group.
Their targets are believed to have been Christians and police officers, according to the report, which said the suspects were also weighing whether to obtain firearms.
Germany has been on high alert for Islamist attacks since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in October, with the country’s domestic intelligence chief warning that the risk of such assaults is “real and higher than it has been for a long time.”
The country is also particularly nervous about security breaches as it prepares to host the European football championships from mid-June to mid-July.
Police had already foiled a suspected plot earlier this year.
Investigators in January arrested three people over an alleged plan targeting the cathedral in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.
Bild reported that the suspects were Tajiks acting for Daesh-Khorasan, the same group believed to have been behind March’s deadly massacre in a Moscow concert hall.
“The danger from Islamist terrorism remains acute,” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said at the time, describing the Khorasan offshoot as “currently the biggest Islamist threat in Germany.”
Islamist extremists have carried out several attacks in Germany in recent years, the deadliest being a truck rampage at a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016 that killed 12 people.
More recently, two Afghans linked to Daesh were arrested in Germany in March on suspicion of planning an attack around Sweden’s parliament in retaliation for Qur'an burnings.
In October, German prosecutors also charged two Syrian brothers for planning an attack inspired by Daesh on a church in Sweden.
In December 2022, a Syrian-born Islamist was jailed for 14 years for a knife attack on a train in Bavaria in which four people were injured.
The number of people considered Islamist extremists in Germany fell from 28,290 in 2021 to 27,480 in 2022, according to a report from the BfV federal domestic intelligence agency.
However, in presenting the report, Faeser said Islamist extremism “remains dangerous.”
Germany became a target for militant groups during its involvement in the coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, and its deployment in Afghanistan.


German lawsuit calls for end to Israeli arms sales

Updated 12 April 2024
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German lawsuit calls for end to Israeli arms sales

  • Country is second-biggest weapons exporter to Tel Aviv after US
  • Rights groups representing Palestinian plaintiffs say Berlin violating humanitarian conventions

LONDON: A lawsuit filed in Germany is asking judges to demand an immediate end to arms sales to Israel by the national government, The Guardian reported on Friday.

The suit is a sign of growing pressure on Berlin’s ties with Israel amid rising discontent over Tel Aviv’s prosecution of its war in Gaza. Germany is the second-biggest arms exporter to Israel after the US.

The lawsuit is requesting judges to demand that the German government revoke all weapons licenses issued to Israel since Oct. 7 last year.

It was filed by four human rights groups, representing five Palestinian people in Gaza who say they are victims of collective punishment by Israel.

One of the lead litigants, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, said in a statement: “It is reasonable to believe that the German government is in violation of the arms trade treaty, the Geneva conventions and its obligations under the genocide convention — agreements that have been ratified by Germany.”

The center’s general secretary, Wolfgang Kaleck, said: “A basic prerequisite for a rules-based and human rights-oriented German foreign policy is respect for the law in its own decision making.

“Germany cannot remain true to its values if it exports weapons to a war where serious violations of international humanitarian law are apparent.”

One of the major transfers that could be impacted by the suit is the sale of 3,000 anti-tank weapons from Germany to Israel.

Some of the Palestinian plaintiffs have lost relatives in the war, as well as homes and jobs. “All five of my children were killed when Israel fired on the refugee camp where we were staying after fleeing from the north,” one said.

“Germany must stop sending weapons that fuel this war. No other mother should suffer such a terrible loss.”

The country, due to the Holocaust, has described “Israeli security” as “at the heart of its foreign policy.”

In response to the suit, the German government told the court it had received and approved of Israeli assurances that it had taken precautions in the use of German-sold weaponry.