To help combat caste-based discrimination, the Indian government reserves places at top Indian universities for lower-caste students, who often take this opportunity and turn it into tech jobs in Silicon Valley. In the US, discrimination laws do not specifically protect citizens based on caste, although this is changing. Reuters reports that of all the major tech companies relying on skilled workers in India, Apple has been the most adamant about preventing caste discrimination among its US employees.

Announced this week for the first time publicly, Apple updated its employee conduct policy in 2020 to “expressly prohibit discrimination based on caste,” the same way it prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, age and origin.

The decision came after the “first US employment case for alleged casteism” was filed in June 2020 by a California employment regulator defending a low-caste engineer working at Cisco Systems. The engineer claimed that two of his bosses at Cisco were upper-caste and hindered his chances of advancement at the tech company.

Although Cisco has denied any wrongdoing and claims it is protected because California law does not prohibit caste discrimination, the company will have to raise those defenses publicly in court. An appeals panel rejected Cisco’s request for private arbitration. Cisco did not immediately provide Ars with comment on the lawsuit or internal company policies. (Update: A Cisco spokesman declined to comment on ongoing litigation.)

Historically, caste was determined by family lineage, with the lowest castes assigned the worst jobs and the highest castes assigned the better paying jobs. Over time, research found that the caste system made higher-caste workers less willing to cooperate with people associated with lower castes. Although lower-caste Indians can compete for better jobs today, some upper-caste employees at tech companies may still view promoting lower-caste members as an insult to their origins.

Reuters interviewed “about two dozen” lower-caste US tech workers who said they were overlooked for “hiring, promotions and social activities” based on “caste cues”. These alerts can be based on their names, where they were born, or even what they ate for lunch.

Until US labor laws update the definition of discrimination to include casteism on par with racism and sexism, each tech company is left to come up with its own solutions to alleged discrimination. Reuters reviewed US industries employing “hundreds of thousands of Indian workers” and found “inconsistent results” on the issue of caste.

Apple told Reuters that the company “updated the language several years ago” in its equal employment opportunity and anti-harassment policies to affirm that the company prohibits “caste-based discrimination or harassment.” She did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.

IBM is another technology company that is addressing casteism in its global policies.

But a Reuters review of internal policy documents from companies such as Meta, Microsoft, Google and Amazon shows that they do not explicitly prohibit caste life. All of these companies told Reuters they “have zero tolerance for caste bias,” and some argued that “such bias would fall within existing prohibitions on discrimination based on categories such as ancestry and national origin.” Those assurances weren’t enough to stop more than 1,600 Google employees from signing a petition asking the company to add casteism to its global employee code of conduct as a form of prohibited discrimination.

Apple has not said whether complaints of casteism have been filed since its policies were updated, but Google’s petition suggests that at least some US workers hope more tech giants will follow in Apple’s footsteps. Google did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.

It’s possible that the outcome of the Cisco discrimination lawsuit, which could come early next year, could prompt further changes in both U.S. discrimination laws and technology companies that set their policies based on federal and state guidelines.

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