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 based on caste, which it added alongside existing categories such as race, religion, gender, age and ancestry.
Cisco, which denies wrongdoing, says an internal investigation found no evidence of discrimination and that some allegations are unfounded because race is not a legally “protected class” in California. An appeals panel this month rejected the networking company’s bid to push the matter to private arbitration, meaning a public court case could come as early as next year.
The controversy – the first US employment lawsuit about alleged racism – has forced Big Tech to confront a millennium-old hierarchy where the social status of Indians has been based on family lineage, from the top Brahmin “priest” class to Dalits until the “untouchables” were sent to slave labour.
Since the suit was filed, several activists and employee groups have begun seeking updated U.S. discrimination legislation – and have also called on tech companies to change their policies to help fill the void and deter casteism.
“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 U.S. 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, 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. However, it declined to give a specific date or a rationale.
The company added that IBM’s only training that mentions caste is for managers in India.