Harvard Graduate Students Union successfully added caste as a protected category in their contract

Harvard University’s decision to include caste as a protected category shows how unions can tackle this pervasive discrimination – and win

In 2010, a senior Indian official was quoted in the news as saying, “How can anyone seriously suggest that India’s fight against caste discrimination will be aided by international attention to the issue?” ?

The comment was intended to oppose the demand by Dalit activists that caste discrimination be officially recognized by the United Nations. India has succeeded in preventing this recognition by the UN, but the caste has not disappeared from the international spotlight as officials perhaps had hoped. A growing South Asian diaspora, particularly in the United States – 90% of which is from the dominant caste – has made castism only one of India’s most visible global exports.

In the United States, activists are now working to add caste as a category of protected identity, not at the UN, but at the workplace and university level. The most recent victory on this front comes from Harvard, where the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU) successfully added caste as a protected category in its contract with the richest university in the world.

Beyond bias

Harvard is not the first university to recognize caste; Brandeis (Massachusetts) did so in 2019, while the University of California, Davis and Colby College (Maine) did so earlier this year. What is important about the Harvard ruling, however, is that it includes caste not in a college policy, student manual, or employee code of conduct, but in a negotiated union contract. by workers and legally enforceable.

Including caste in a trade union struggle rightly recognizes it as a system which has long conferred material advantages and disadvantages beyond mere “prejudice” or “prejudice”. A 2016 survey by Equality Labs found that 60% of Dalit respondents had experienced caste-based denigration through jokes and slurs; 67% had experienced caste discrimination in their workplace. Attacks on the dignity of Dalits therefore seemed to go hand in hand with attacks on their means of subsistence.

Workers at the helm

Recent high profile cases have highlighted caste as a livelihood issue. In 2020, Indians of the dominant caste of the computer conglomerate Cisco

A rally of blue shirts organized by various Ambedkarite organizations in Coimbatore in 2020.

A rally of blue shirts organized by various Ambedkarite organizations in Coimbatore in 2020. | Photo credit: Siva Saravanan

were found to have discriminated against a Dalit colleague who received “the lowest status within a team of upper caste colleagues, receiving less pay, fewer opportunities and less work. other inferior conditions of employment ”. Since then, Dalit women from Apple, Google and Microsoft have presented similar accounts of discrimination.

Reports beyond Silicon Valley have reported blatant abuses such as caste-based slavery in a New Jersey temple, untouchability in a California restaurant, and the ostracism of Dalit students at universities the United States. Such caste discrimination comes at a real cost. In the Equality Labs survey, over 30% of Dalit households reported earning less than $ 24,999 per year, while the same percentage of Brahmin households earned between $ 100,000 and $ 249,999 per year.

Crucial victory

If caste is a work issue, then our efforts to combat castism must put workers at the forefront of any proposed solution. That is why or the caste protections being added might be even more important than the addition itself. Adding a caste to a company policy is fundamentally different from adding it to an employment contract. The first is applied at the option of employers; the latter is used as a weapon of the workers.

The word “caste” appearing in Cisco’s internal policy could hardly be expected to prevent discrimination; it’s not as if members of the dominant caste check the employee manual before mistreating their coworker. Companies, too, rarely bother to check their policies before declaring, as Cisco did, that their internal investigation found no evidence of discrimination. In short, it is not enough to improve non-discriminatory language without changing who has the power to enforce that language.

This is where Harvard’s victory becomes crucial. As a worker-led union, the HGSU has the power to report breaches of contracts – now including caste discrimination – that the university is required to deal with within a set time frame. If the university does not or if its investigative process is flawed, the union can take the matter to a neutral mediator or arbitrator. Unlike most lone worker legal battles, HGSU plaintiffs do not have to incur heavy legal costs or fight a powerful corporation on their own. Additionally, if the union wins the case in arbitration, the outcome would include recourse, possibly including financial redress for lost wages or opportunities.

Most importantly, this process at the HGSU of caste protection enforcement is meant to be carried out by colleagues; he does not count on the benevolence of the bosses. If formal processes do not work at some point, these mobilized workers can exercise their collective influence over their bosses to achieve equitable results for one another.

Building on the Harvard precedent, union struggles across the United States can become important tools in the anti-caste arsenal, especially in labor-intensive South Asian industries (tech, hospitality). , Higher Education). Google’s Alphabet Workers’ Union is already trying to include caste in its platform of demands. In personal communications, union activists at US universities have indicated they want to follow suit.

HGSU’s victory builds on something activists and academics have known for decades: This caste is, and always has been, a bread and butter problem that concerns land, labor, wages, and money. access to a life of dignity. Harvard workers add to this received wisdom simply by showing that if caste is about livelihoods, then the future of caste control, in industries ranging from technology to sanitation, in India and abroad. , must be rooted in the collective power of the workers.

The writer is a Harvard-based journalist, union organizer and scholar whose research focuses on poverty, inequality and grassroots movements.