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Caste: an aspect of race

Protection is to be given against discriminatory treatment on the grounds of caste following a recent vote in the House of Lords.

Protection is to be given against discriminatory treatment on the grounds of caste following a recent vote in the House of Lords. The established protected characteristic of race will be extended to cover caste as “an aspect of race”. The Government has now agreed that the necessary Regulations will be introduced later this year following a provision in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. This change of heart by the Government follows a series of challenges from the Government’s own backbenchers and the House of Lords, who argued that the Government’s preferred option of letting the matter be addressed through education and mediation was just not adequate.

The term ‘caste’ was historically used to denote social divisions in Indian society. The caste system is believed to have originated from Hinduism but there are many different types of caste and the concept is recognised by other major religious groupings including Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists. Campaigners for specific legislation have argued that the present laws offered no protection for low caste Dalits, the so-called ‘untouchables’, because the caste system itself divided society unfairly . Low castes were expected to take the poorly paid work and to look up to and respect higher castes.

A provision had been included in the Equality Act 2010 to enable further legislation to be introduced to make discrimination on the ground of caste unlawful. The Government then commissioned independent research to evaluate how widespread the issue was and whether the existing legislation (which protects, amongst other characteristics, discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief and race) was adequate to already protect against caste discrimination. There followed a period of independent research by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIERS) which published its report Caste Discrimination and Harassment in Great Britain later that year.

The NIERS report estimated that there were 200,000 people living in Great Britain who were classified as Dalits, but this figure may be much higher as it is something that people are often not prepared to admit. The NIERS report found evidence that Dalits experienced caste discrimination in respect of bullying, harassment, and social exclusion. It also found cases where caste appeared to have affected the tasks people did in their job or was the underlying reason for movement to lower level jobs.

The report found substantial evidence of caste discrimination and concluded that the existing legislation was not adequate to give the necessary protection. The research suggested that although there is an obvious correlation between religion and caste, it is not true to say that caste discrimination is always because of religion. Some religious groups such as Indian Christians are disproportionately from lower castes, but that religion is not wholly confined to low castes. It was concerned that should a case be brought on the grounds of religion or belief, a court might not be able to find that the discrimination was on the grounds of religion rather than the fact of caste. Similarly, there is not sufficient correlation between caste and race to ensure protection under that characteristic either. The report recommended specific legislation to recognise caste as a protected characteristic.

Following the latest vote in the House of Lords (which was in fact the second time the Lords had voted for the amendment) the Government has accepted that caste would in future be treated as an aspect of race. This is now laid down in the 2013 Act.

In addition to the introduction of statutory protection, the Government has also asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to examine the nature of caste prejudice and harassment and to consider what other action might be helpful.

What actual difference the new legislation will make in practice is hard to gauge. During the debates on caste discrimination, the Equalities Minister, Jo Swinson, argued that the issue was contained in the Hindu and Sikh communities and was best addressed through education programmes instead. However, employers are likely to accept the view that caste discrimination in the workplace is wrong and the people who suffer from it deserve legal protection. Employers can expect the changes to be brought in over the next few months.