Is it really true that caste-based discrimination is an issue for global companies? The International Labour Organisation says that this type of discrimination, which is mainly found in south Asia, is particularly widespread in the agriculture, mining and garment production sectors. These sectors supply products to many multi-national and European companies.
A human rights violation
Caste discrimination has yet to be recognised specifically in most jurisdictions as a discrimination category in its own right. This state of affairs is changing. In October last year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the practice as a human rights violation. The resolution called upon European Institutions to recognise it and address it on a par with other forms of discrimination such as ethnicity, race, religion, gender and sexuality.
Already covered by UK law
In the UK, a new category of discrimination to include caste is expected to be introduced in 2015. However, in a recent case, the employment tribunal has taken matters into its own hands. It has ruled that the current law on discrimination already covers caste issues.
The decision recognised that caste systems are a form of social stratification which are inherited and fixed at birth. Caste matters are often linked to geographic origin and language. The practice occurs mainly in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka but is also found in Yemen, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Somalia.
In the UK case the judge decided that the claimant’s caste status was inextricably linked to race and religious discrimination. Race (which is protected) includes the idea of ethnic origin, which covers caste. Discrimination on grounds of descent (also a part of caste) had previously been held to be race discrimination.
The English courts therefore appear to be grasping the issue head on and without the need for new legislation.
A paradox of the 21st century
The wider world seems to be waking up to the need to address the caste issue as one of human rights. Global companies need to ensure the practice is not affecting their own workforce or the workforce of their suppliers.