In an unusual case of discrimination by caste, the state of California has alleged two managers at Cisco Systems harassed a fellow Indian-American employee because he comes from the lowest social group in India’s caste system.
The suit filed on Tuesday by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) also names Cisco as a defendant, claiming the networking equipment giant failed to prevent the alleged harassment of an engineer identified only as John Doe or address the problem of caste-based discrimination in its workforce.
“For decades, similar to Doe’s team, Cisco’s technical workforce has been — and continues to be — predominantly South Asian Indian,” the DFEH said in its complaint, noting that more than 70% of Cisco’s H1-B visa workers come from India.
U.S. employment law does not specifically bar caste-based discrimination but the DFEH contends Cisco subjected Doe to “disparate terms and conditions of employment based on his religion, ancestry, national origin/ethnicity, and race/color.”
“It is unacceptable for workplace conditions and opportunities to be determined by a hereditary social status determined by birth,” DFEH Director Kevin Kish said in a news release. “Employers must be prepared to prevent, remedy, and deter unlawful conduct against workers because of caste.”
According to the DFEH, Doe was born at the bottom of India’s caste hierarchy as a Dalit, once called “untouchables.” As a principal engineer at Cisco, he has worked with a team of entirely Indian employees, all of whom, except for him, are from higher castes.
As beneficiaries of the caste system, Doe’s higher caste supervisors Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella and co-workers allegedly “imported the discriminatory system’s practices into their team and Cisco’s workplace.”
“Doe was expected to accept a caste hierarchy within the workplace where Doe held the lowest status within the team and, as a result, received less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment,” the suit says.
The DFEH also claims Doe’s supervisors retaliated against him when he “unexpectedly opposed the unlawful practices, contrary to the traditional order between the Dalit and higher castes.”
A 2018 survey by the civil rights group Equality Labs found that 67% of Dalits felt they were treated unfairly at their U.S. workplaces.