Caste: A challenge for equality, diversity, and inclusion


With caste-based discrimination becoming more apparent in organisations, employers should be concerned, just as they are about other inequalities such as gender, race, and religion.

A research study commissioned by the UK government in 2010 revealed caste discrimination in workplaces. In another survey conducted by Equality Labs in the U.S. in 2016, two out of three Dalits (the lowest caste in the hierarchy) reported being treated unfairly in the workplace. Additionally, caste-based nepotism in U.S. workplaces and caste-bias facing Dalit women in the U.S. tech industry have been noted recently. Caste, a system of inequality that is typically associated with the Indian subcontinent, has now become a global phenomenon. Not surprisingly, caste has become a part of the conversation in Australia, and is garnering attention of diversity professionals.

Similar to other forms of inequality, caste can take form in multiple ways in Australian organisations. First, caste can influence hiring and other HR practices, as exemplified by threats to hire only upper-caste Indians, and not hire those of lower-castes. Second, to showcase values of diversity and multiculturalism, organisations tend to celebrate the festivals, rituals and practices of South Asians, but these may exclude the lower-castes as they may have caste-oppressive origins as argued in the case of Diwali and Yoga. Third, caste can often manifest within team dynamics, determining who is included and who is excluded, namely the alienation of lower castes. This can occur, and maybe unnoticed by those who are not aware of the caste system, as caste can be inferred from a combination of factors, such as last names, food habits, rituals followed, cultural identity/heritage, etc. Lastly, caste can manifest among social interactions in organisations, including anti-affirmative action sentiments and denigration of lower caste cultures.

With caste-based discrimination becoming more apparent in organisations, employers should be concerned, just as they are about other inequalities such as gender, race, and religion. Research has shown that societal inequalities can permeate organisations and affect their performance by influencing the attitudes, behaviours and cognitions of employees as well as organisational strategies. As evidenced in the context of Covid-19, decision makers who lack understanding of marginalisation may perpetuate inequalities in organisations, leading to lower productivity, higher turnover, and a hostile organisational culture.

Additionally, there is potential for discrimination litigation as evidenced by the case of a Bhutanese-Australian who reported being discriminated for mixing with lower-castes and filed a discrimination case with the Equal Opportunity commission of South Australia.

So, what can organisations do? 

Once again, as they do in case of other inequality systems, organisations can tailor their recruitment and HR processes to avoid discrimination or preference based on caste. They can recognise caste as a protected category for discrimination so that employees can report cases of discrimination.

While it is unlawful in Australia to disadvantage employees based on social origin, including caste, it often goes unnoticed in the discourse on equality, diversity, and inclusion. Therefore, organisations need to understand the many ways in which caste manifests in workplaces and train managers to recognise caste-based discrimination. Otherwise, they run the risk of unwittingly reproducing caste inequalities simply through silence and inaction.

Australian organisations need to start paying attention to caste, especially as there are an increasing number of South Asian migrants to Australia, with those from India alone accounting for almost 2.6% of Australian population. In addition, Indian subcontinent diasporas in other countries, like Fiji, also migrated to Australia. While we wait for the release of the latest census data, it might be reasonable to speculate that a million people in Australia may trace their origins to South Asia where the caste system influences the lives of people. Therefore, it is a strategic imperative for Australian companies to start paying attention to caste.