Cisco sued by state of California for caste discrimination

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Cisco, a major manufacturer of computer networking hardware and software, has been sued by the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment (DFEH) for discriminating against a former South Asian employee whose family is classified as low caste in India and fostering a ‘malicious, fraudulent, and oppressive’ work culture.

The caste system in India, which has existed for centuries, is based on one’s family heritage. Members of the so-called upper castes such as Brahmins enjoy social privileges while members of lower castes such as the Dalit community - once known as ‘untouchables’ because their ancestors did menial work - have historically been discriminated against. Sexual violence and even lynchings against lower caste people are commonplace in India.

Despite the fact that caste discrimination was banned in 1948 in India, a person’s last name often still determines the job that they are hired to perform, the people they can wed, and ultimately the life outcomes they can expect.

As hundreds of thousands of engineers from India have relocated to the U.S. in recent years, notably to work in places like California’s Silicon Valley, they have imported these historical prejudices into their workplaces.

The California lawsuit was brought on behalf of ‘John Doe’ (a legal pseudonym used in the U.S for an anonymous employee), a former Cisco engineer, who alleges that he was paid less, given fewer working opportunities, and endured harassment from his Indian colleagues due to his lower-caste heritage. The lawsuit names two colleagues of Doe who allegedly conducted the discrimination: Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella.

In the lawsuit, Doe says that when he contacted Cisco’s human resources department to complain about his experience with caste discrimination, he was met with an immediate backlash from his supervisor. In December 2016, after Doe filed a formal written complaint, an investigation confirmed clear evidence of caste-based discrimination, but ultimately concluded “that caste discrimination was not unlawful” under U.S. law which only explicitly outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. After Doe requested a re-investigation in April 2017, a second manager closed the case on the grounds that she could not find any evidence of caste-based discrimination.

On June 30, the state of California sued Cisco on behalf of John Doe. “It is unacceptable for workplace conditions and opportunities to be determined by a hereditary social status determined by birth,” said Kevin Kish, director of DFEH, in a press release.

Cisco claims that it did not do anything illegal. “Cisco is committed to an inclusive workplace for all,” Robyn Blum, a Cisco spokesperson, told the media in a press statement. “We have robust processes to report and investigate concerns raised by employees which were followed in this case dating back to 2016, and have determined we were fully in compliance with all laws as well as our own policies. Cisco will vigorously defend itself against the allegations made in this complaint.”

Legal experts say that part of the problem lie with the way U.S. laws are written. “If anything, the U.S. legal system has a lot of catch-up to do,” Laurence Simon, a Brandeis University professor told Bloomberg Law.

Activists say that the case is not isolated. “The Cisco case is the tip of the iceberg. It is not an isolated case of harassment by an employer, but the symptom of a much deeper malaise,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs and a Dalit rights activist based in the U.S. told The Wire, an Indian online publication.

In fact, shortly after the Cisco lawsuit announcement, more than 250 Dalits from Apple, Facebook, Google amd Microsoft and Netflix came forward with harrowing stories of bullying, discrimination, ostracization, and even sexual misconduct.

Raina, a tech employee who was born into a low caste Indian family , told Vice that when she worked alongside upper-caste Indians in a U.S. company, her promotion was put on a hold for five years. Four months after she moved to a company with no employees of Indian origin, she says she was promoted.

Maya Kamble, another tech employee whose family is from a low caste, told The Wire that she was shunned by fellow Indians in the U.S. She said that she was even discriminated against when she had solutions to problems that others could not solve. “When I offered to help, my manager, who is upper caste, said I was jinxed, and should not touch the project as I was ill-fated,” said Kamble.

“Caste is a social currency that can prove highly valuable in the tech industry, where caste privilege easily hides behind ideals of meritocracy,” Kamble wrote in an opinion article for Al Jazeera. “It is so deeply internalised by people of the dominant castes that many of them are not even aware they are actively involved in propagating it.”

In August 2020, the Indian American Alliance Against Caste, a coalition of South Asian activist groups in the U.S., put together a letter addressed to top executives of major tech companies in Silicon Valley. “Caste based discrimination has long been an unacknowledged problem in Silicon Valley and the U.S.,” they wrote. “Neglecting caste is tantamount to allowing your company to be a hostile workplace.”

 

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