Caste in California: Tech giants confront ancient Indian hierarchy

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

Caste in California: Tech giants confront ancient Indian hierarchy

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. 


Blackouts hit 130 million in Bangladesh after grid failure

Blackouts hit 130 million in Bangladesh after grid failure
Updated 04 October 2022

Blackouts hit 130 million in Bangladesh after grid failure

Blackouts hit 130 million in Bangladesh after grid failure
  • Bangladesh has suffered a major power crisis in recent month as a result of higher global energy prices
  • It remained unclear what caused Tuesday's unscheduled blackout, which hit more than 80 percent of the country shortly after 2 pm local time

DHAKA: At least 130 million people in Bangladesh were without power on Tuesday afternoon after a grid failure caused widespread blackouts, the government’s power utility company said.
Bangladesh has suffered a major power crisis in recent month as a result of higher global energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and has imposed regular service cuts to conserve electricity.
But it remained unclear what caused Tuesday’s unscheduled blackout, which hit more than 80 percent of the country shortly after 2 p.m. local time (0800 GMT), according to the Power Development Board.
Apart from some locations in Bangladesh’s northwest, “the rest of the country is without power,” Power Development Board spokesman Shamim Ahsan told AFP.
Ahsan said 130 million people or more were without electricity and it remained unclear what had caused the fault.
“It is still under investigation,” he said, adding that a technical malfunction was the probable cause.
Junior technology minister Zunaid Palak said on Facebook that power would be restored by 8 p.m. in the capital Dhaka, itself home to more than 22 million people.
Soaring energy prices have wrought havoc on the South Asian nation’s electricity grid in recent months, with utilities struggling to source enough diesel and gas to meet demand.
A depreciating currency and dwindling foreign exchange reserves left Bangladesh unable to import sufficient fossil fuels, forcing it to close diesel plants and leave some gas-fired power stations idle.
The government imposed lengthy power cuts to conserve existing stocks in July, with outages lasting up to 13 hours each day at their peak.
Tens of thousands of mosques around the country have been asked to curtail the use of air conditioners to ease pressure on the electricity grid.
The blackouts sparked widespread public anger and helped mobilize large demonstrations on the streets of the capital Dhaka.
At least three protesters were killed by security forces during the rallies, partly motivated by rising cost-of-living pressures.
Around 100 others were injured during a police crackdown on one demonstration, according to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Consumer inflation has hit household budgets hard and the government recently pledged to cap the price of several staple foods, including rice, to quell public discontent.
Bangladesh last witnessed a major unscheduled blackout in November 2014, when around 70 percent of the country went without power for nearly 10 hours.


WHO warns Haiti cholera toll likely to rise

WHO warns Haiti cholera toll likely to rise
Updated 04 October 2022

WHO warns Haiti cholera toll likely to rise

WHO warns Haiti cholera toll likely to rise
  • Fresh fears of a resurgent epidemic nearly three years after Haiti’s last confirmed case
  • WHO: The world was now witnessing a ‘worrying upsurge’ in cholera outbreaks

GENEVA: Haiti’s cholera outbreak death toll is likely “much higher” than reported and cases are expected to rise, the WHO said Tuesday, warning the country’s multiple crises would complicate response efforts.
The crisis-wracked Caribbean nation said Sunday that at least seven people had died from cholera, raising fresh fears of a resurgent epidemic nearly three years after Haiti’s last confirmed case.
Multiple suspected cases have been detected in Carrefour-Feuilles on the edge of the capital Port-au-Prince, and in the coastal neighborhood of Cite Soleil.
The areas are entirely controlled by gangs and access to them has been very difficult since the end of July.
Conditions in Haiti have worsened in recent weeks with blockades, fuel shortages, protest marches, looting and general strikes.
“This situation greatly complicates the humanitarian response,” World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva.
“The situation is evolving rapidly, and it is possible earlier cases have been undetected.”
He said the death toll figures could be “much higher.”
“With the humanitarian situation as it is, the sanitary situation, and the gang-controlled areas where there’s hardly any access to control, to test or even to bring in assistance, we should expect, unfortunately, cases to be higher, and to rise,” he said.
Lindmeier said a request was being prepared to be submitted to the international coordination group for the procurement of oral cholera vaccines.
However, global vaccine availability is limited with demand outstripping supply.
Cholera is an acute diarrheal infection in the small intestine causing sometimes fatal dehydration. It is generally contracted from food or water contaminated with vibrio cholerae bacteria.
In February this year, Haiti celebrated three years without a single confirmed cholera case and was preparing to submit its case for cholera-free status certification at the end of 2022.
Cholera killed nearly 10,000 people in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, when United Nations workers helping with the response introduced it to the country.
The outbreak affected at least 820,000 people, the WHO said.
The first infections were detected around the Artibonite River, where UN peacekeepers had dumped fecal matter.
It was not until August 2016 that the UN officially acknowledged its role in the epidemic.
Lindmeier said there was no information yet on where the current outbreak originated, but said roughly 80 percent of people carrying vibrio cholerae could be asymptomatic, making it difficult to detect.
The United Nations said it stood ready to deploy emergency response teams as soon as safe access is assured and fuel supplies are unblocked.
On Friday the WHO warned that after years of decline, the world was now witnessing a “worrying upsurge” in cholera outbreaks.
In the first nine months of this year alone, 26 countries have reported cholera outbreaks, the WHO said.


Belarus’s Lukashenko accuses Ukraine of border provocations

Belarus’s Lukashenko accuses Ukraine of border provocations
Updated 04 October 2022

Belarus’s Lukashenko accuses Ukraine of border provocations

Belarus’s Lukashenko accuses Ukraine of border provocations
  • Lukashenko allowed his close ally Russia in February to use Belarus as a staging post for its invasion of Ukraine
  • Belarus is not a party to the conflict and that its own forces are not involved

LONDON: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accused neighboring Ukraine on Tuesday of sending 15,000 troops to the border area to build defenses and conduct reconnaissance, actions that he called “provocations.”
Lukashenko allowed his close ally Russia in February to use Belarus as a staging post for its invasion of Ukraine. However, he has said Belarus is not a party to the conflict and that its own forces are not involved.
In comments carried by the state news agency BelTA, Lukashenko said the Ukrainian unit brought up to the border had blocked roads and was setting up checkpoints and firing positions.
“In a word, has not only barricaded itself, but built a wall. Constantly conducting optical, radio-electronic and radio-technical reconnaissance of our territory, troops and objects,” Lukashenko said.
“Often with their drones violating the line of the state border. And at the same time, they worry and worry: ‘Oh, don’t let Belarus enter the war’. And there are constant provocations at the border.”
Ukrainian officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lukashenko said his country was involved in the conflict only to prevent it spreading into Belarus and to “prevent an attack on Belarus under the guise of a special military operation from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.”
“As I have said, nobody will shoot the Russians in the back from the territory of Belarus,” he said.
Belarus’s three western neighbors are all part of the NATO transatlantic alliance, which is helping Ukraine to defend itself against Russia with weapons and intelligence but says it will not take a direct part in the conflict.


Merkel wins UN refugee agency award over welcome of Syrians

Merkel wins UN refugee agency award over welcome of Syrians
Updated 04 October 2022

Merkel wins UN refugee agency award over welcome of Syrians

Merkel wins UN refugee agency award over welcome of Syrians
  • Under Angela Merkel’s leadership, Germany welcomed over 1.2 million refugees in 2015 and 2016

GENEVA: The UN refugee agency said Tuesday it’s giving its highest award to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her efforts to welcome more than 1 million refugees — mostly from Syria — into Germany, despite some criticism both at home and abroad.
Matthew Saltmarsh, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said Merkel had been selected as the latest recipient for the Nansen award, which is handed out annually by the Geneva-based UN agency.
“Under the then-Federal Chancellor Merkel’s leadership, Germany welcomed more than 1.2 million refugees and asylum-seekers in 2015 and 2016, which, as you will remember, was the height of the conflict in Syria, and there was deadly violence in other parts of the world,” Saltmarsh told reporters. “Dr. Merkel helped to highlight the plight of refugees globally.”
Merkel’s decision to let in so many migrants boosted the far-right Alternative for Germany party and resulted in protests by a vocal minority. She was also blasted by some governments for being too friendly to refugees, when some European Union partner states were closing borders to refugees and asylum-seekers.
The award includes a $150,000 prize. Merkel is expected to travel to Geneva next Monday to receive the award, Saltmarsh said. Four regional winners were also announced.
The UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award honors individuals, groups or organizations that go “above and beyond the call of duty” to protect refugees, other displaced and stateless people, the agency says.
More than 60 laureates have received the award since it was founded in 1954 to celebrate Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian scientist, explorer and diplomat who was the first commissioner for refugees in the League of Nations — the predecessor of the the United Nations
The recipient in 2021 was the Jeel Albena Association for Humanitarian Development in Yemen, for its support for displaced Yemenis.


Russia’s Federation Council ratifies annexation of four Ukrainian regions

Russia’s Federation Council ratifies annexation of four Ukrainian regions
Updated 04 October 2022

Russia’s Federation Council ratifies annexation of four Ukrainian regions

Russia’s Federation Council ratifies annexation of four Ukrainian regions
  • Russian Federation Council unanimously ratified legislation to annex Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia

MOSCOW: The upper house of Russia’s parliament voted on Tuesday to approve the incorporation of four Ukrainian regions into Russia, as Moscow sets about formally annexing territory it sized from Kyiv during its seven-month conflict.
In a session on Tuesday, the Federation Council unanimously ratified legislation to annex the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine, following a similar vote in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, yesterday.
The documents now pass back to the Kremlin for President Vladimir Putin’s final signature to complete the process of formally annexing the four regions, representing around 18 percent of Ukraine’s internationally-recognized territory.
Russia declared the annexations after holding what it called referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine. Western governments and Kyiv said the votes breached international law and were coercive and non-representative.

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