On The Horizon: California Bill Seeks To Ban Caste-Based Discrimination
California is likely to become the first state to explicitly ban caste-based discrimination in the context of employment, housing, and public schools. SB 403 seeks to amend the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), along with other statutes, by explicitly identifying “caste” as a characteristic protected by FEHA.
FEHA already protects California workers from harassment and discrimination in their employment based on various protected characteristics (e.g., race, sex, disability), and it arguably already protects employees against “caste” discrimination through its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of ancestry. SB 403 seeks to make that coverage explicit, by adding language to FEHA clarifying that protections on the basis of “ancestry” specifically include “caste”. SB 403 states that it is meant to declare and clarify existing law, and should not be construed to mean that discrimination on the basis of ancestry does not already include discrimination on the basis of caste.
Generally speaking, and as defined by SB 403, a caste system is a system of rigid social stratification employed in some cultures (paradigmatically it is historically associated with Hindu society in India), where individuals are assigned to various hierarchical social groups, i.e., their “caste”, based on their birth and ancestry, and then are expected to limit their participation in society as prescribed by their particular caste. Historically speaking, caste has, at times, imposed restrictions on marriage and vocation, and has led to other various forms of public segregation and social exclusion. Caste is estimated to affect hundreds of millions of people globally, primarily of South Asian descent.
While some employers may assume that caste-based discrimination does not affect their California workforce, employees from caste-oppressed backgrounds may not always agree. For example, although caste has been formally outlawed in India since 1948, proponents of SB 403 argue that caste-based sentiments persist in some segments of society, and that these sentiments have found their way into the work cultures of some California employers, particularly in the tech industry. On the other hand, some Hindu-American groups have opposed SB 403 on grounds that it would unfairly stigmatize people of South Asian descent not only as potential victims, but as perpetrators of caste bias.
Despite these diverging concerns, we expect that SB 403 will soon become law. The state Assembly passed the bill with a nearly unanimous vote on Monday. An earlier version of the bill was already approved by the Senate, but the state Senate must now sign off on the revised Assembly version before it can go to Governor Gavin Newsom to be signed into law.
We will update this blog if and when the bill becomes law, but regardless of outcome, this bill evidences a growing concern to eliminate caste bias in the workplace, which California’s Civil Rights Department is likely to prioritize. Accordingly, employment counsel, HR professionals, and managers should be sensitive to this issue when considering personnel decisions that have the potential to be infected by unlawful caste bias.
Prior to becoming an attorney, in 2006 the author of this blog, M. Leah Cameron lived in Hyderabad, India, where she volunteered with a non-profit organization that promoted Dalit human rights. Dalits are individuals who have been historically placed in the lowest stratum of India’s caste system.