The introduction of the Equality Act in 2010 brought together various strands of existing legislation prohibiting discrimination on different grounds including race, religion etc. It also confirmed the coverage of other grounds such as maternity and pregnancy. Discrimination on the grounds of someone’s ‘caste’, however, was not explicitly covered and the Government has been considering how the law currently provides protection in this area.
What is ‘caste’?
Caste is the name given to the system of social status and ritual purity predominately, but not exclusively, seen in the Hindu religion. It is generally seen as a fixed status and movement into a ‘higher’ caste is not usually possible. Marriage within one’s own caste is expected. The lowest status – Dalit – was known as the ‘untouchable’. According to a report produced by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), there are a number of indications of a person’s caste:
- Village of origin;
- Temple of worship.
Does Current Protection Against Race Discrimination Not Cover Caste?
Not specifically, no. The current definition of race in the Equality Act covers:
- Ethnic or national origins.
Caste does not appear to naturally fit into any of the above aspects and this has led the Government to consider exactly what it needs to do to ensure that employers consider it alongside the current protected characteristics.
“Caste In Great Britain And Equality Law: A Public Consultation” was launched in March 2017 and set out the Government’s proposals to ensure individuals are protected against discrimination on this ground.
There are two main proposals:
- Rely on current case law which has established that caste can already be caught under the Equality Act;
- Amend the law and specifically include caste as an element of race. This will effectively rubberstamp the case law and remove the opportunity for a higher court to overturn the decision. This will not result in the number of protected characteristics being increased, instead will add caste to the existing aspects of race listed above.
Current Case Law
In Tirkey v Chandhok, the Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled that caste can be caught under the Equality Act after a domestic worker claimed she was treated less favourably by her employer because of her low caste status. The effect of the judgment is that it is likely that anyone who believes that they have been discriminated against because of caste could now bring a race discrimination claim.
What This Means For Employers
- Regardless of the outcome of the consultation, it appears that individuals are protected against being treated less favourably by their employer because of their caste;
- Employers should review equal opportunities policies to ensure that caste is mentioned where it provides the definition of race;
- Ensure that caste does not play a part in deciding who to recruit; train; promote etc;
- Ensure all employees are aware of your stance towards caste discrimination. You can be liable for the actions of your employees even though you might not know of their behaviour.
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