Caste discrimination in the workplace
The recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (“EAT”) decision in Chandhok and another v Tirkey (“the Tirkey case”) caused a bit of a stir. Whilst many of us focused on the significant award of nearly £184,000 made to the claimant, a domestic worker, in relation to her minimum wage claim, the case was of greater importance as it considered the issue of caste discrimination in the workplace. Until now there has been much debate as to whether a worker who had suffered caste discrimination had the right to legal redress.
Caste usually refers to social levels in certain cultures and racial groups. The impact is that individuals’ positions in society are fixed by birth or occupation and are hereditary. For example, an individual’s caste could be determined by the occupation of their forefathers.
In 2010 the Government-commissioned report on caste discrimination (“the 2010 report”) recognised that caste discrimination could be an issue for employers. This was the case even though from a legal perspective the concept was not expressly addressed in the Equality Act 2010, which only makes reference to “race” which includes “colour; nationality; ethnic or national origin”.
Examples of workplace caste discrimination
The 2010 report did however provide examples of workplace caste-based unfair treatment, bullying and harassment. These included:
- Exclusion from work social events and networks.
- Humiliating behaviour such as “women of so called upper castes not taking water from the same tap from where the so called lower caste person drinks”.
- Bullying and harassment by superiors which also affected promotion, task allocation and dismissal. Examples given included:
- Not permitting someone of a low caste to take holiday when requested.
- An individual being promoted to manager but his team not accepting his authority because he was of lower caste than them.
- Recruitment – if employees are taken on by recommendation, this could be because they are of the same caste.
- Task allocation – a higher caste manager was alleged to allocate better paid work to higher caste employees.
The equal treatment principal
Whilst employers are fully familiar with the legal requirement that all workers must be treated equally regardless of a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, caste discrimination has always been a grey area.
Caste discrimination is a type of race discrimination
The Tirkey case has however provided some long awaited clarity, confirming that caste discrimination can be classified as a type of race discrimination. This case also provides a clear (if extreme) example of caste discrimination in the UK – on the particular facts it was found that Ms T was the victim of unlawful harassment on the ground of her race (as well as other successful claims).
The facts of this case are as follows:
- Ms T worked for Mr and Mrs C as a domestic worker. Her caste (which is inherited and immutable) is the Adivasi, which is known as a “servant caste”. Adivasis have been recognised as being at the lowest point of almost every socio-economic indicator, and are frequently equated with Dalits (once known as “untouchables”). Ms T claimed that Mr and Mrs C treated her badly and in a demeaning manner, and that this was in part because of her low status which was infected with considerations of caste.
- The employment tribunal was told that over a four and a half year period Ms T:
- worked an 18-hour day, seven days a week;
- slept on a foam mattress on the floor;
- was prevented from bringing her Bible to the UK and going to church;
- had her passport held by Mr and Mrs C and she had no access to it;
- was not allowed to call her family; and
- was given second-hand clothing instead of choosing her own clothes.
This is (we hope) an extreme situation which does not involve a normal employer/employee relationship. Employers should however be aware that caste discrimination can and does occur in many business situations. The 2010 report stated that caste awareness in Britain is concentrated amongst people with roots in the Indian subcontinent, who comprise five per cent of the population.
Equality and diversity initiatives can be beneficial
Employers with robust management initiatives around equality and diversity should be in a position to prevent unlawful discrimination on the grounds of a worker’s caste. Main considerations for any equality and diversity strategy should involve the following:
- Having a top level commitment to equality and diversity in the workplace.
- Ensuring there is an equal opportunities policy in place which makes it clear that discrimination, bullying and harassment will not be tolerated. Employees should be made aware of the existence of the policy and the likely sanctions for breaching it.
- Making sure equality training is an integral part of any training programme.
- Analysing business decisions and practices which could have the effect of discriminating on the grounds of any protected characteristic including race (caste). Areas for review include: discipline and grievances; recruitment; promotion; pay and reward; terms and conditions; and access to training.
- Investigating complaints of discrimination, bullying and harassment under the grievance procedure or, where relevant, the anti-harassment and bullying policy.
- Having strategies which ensure that the workforce is diverse and is representative of the areas/communities from which it is drawn.
- Monitoring the effectiveness of the equal opportunities policy.
- Taking remedial action where inequality is identified.
Those businesses that strive to remove workplace bias will find themselves much better off in terms of staff morale, productivity and access to untapped talent.
Chandhok and another v Tirkey  IRLR 195
For more details about discrimination in the workplace, developing workplace equality and diversity strategies and training please contact:
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This update is for general guidance only and does not constitute definitive advice.