Seattle Becomes First US City to Ban Caste Discrimination – GeekWire

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant promoted legislation outlawing caste discrimination in Seattle. (GeekWire File Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Seattle lawmakers on Tuesday passed legislation banning caste discrimination that could impact tech workers and businesses.

The first-in-the-nation law aims to address a social practice rooted in India and other countries with thousands of years of history.

Caste is “a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion,” according to the legislation.

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, who sponsored the bill, said workers — including in the technology sector — face discrimination in their workplaces in Seattle and other cities across the country.

She called the new anti-discrimination law “profound and historic”.

“It’s a beacon for cities and states across the country and for working people elsewhere to build movements to outlaw this horrific form of oppression as well,” Sawant said.

Several technicians endorsed the law during an emotional 75-minute public comment period at Tuesday’s city council meeting. An Alphabet Workers Union member who supported the bill said they had witnessed caste-based abuse and said incidents could not be reported due to “lack of caste protection” or “non-compliance” by companies.

Another person said her last name and background were “constantly questioned” by a colleague at a tech startup.

Varisha Khan, a council member from Redmond, Washington – home of Microsoft – also spoke during the public comment period.

“Over the years I have heard stories from the caste-oppressed community who have been discriminated against without recourse, and how many of them have had to hide their caste to ensure they are not discriminated against by dominant caste members who can act with impunity,” said Khan. “I challenge you to make civil rights history and vote yes.”

A majority of speakers supported the bill, although some urged the council to vote against it, citing the complexity of the caste system.

Councilor Sara Nelson was the only vote against the legislation. She pointed to the potential of “another costly lawsuit, possibly filed by a well-funded employer in the tech sector.”

“I am concerned that designating caste as a protected class in Seattle is likely to be a reckless, unnecessary, and harmful solution to a problem that we have no data or research into as it occurs in Seattle,” she said Tuesday.

Tech executives previously told GeekWire that they personally have not seen caste bias in the tech community in Seattle or in the US

An alleged case of caste discrimination in the technology industry has grown into a notable court case in California, in which a former Cisco Systems employee claims he was a victim of discrimination because of his low caste.

Bloomberg Law reported that the unnamed worker claimed that supervisors at Cisco headquarters in San Jose, California, barred him from meetings because of his status as a member of the Dalit caste, believed to be the bottom tier of the hierarchical South Asian system and passed over for promotions.

The lawsuit tests California’s antidiscrimination law, which includes protections against discrimination based on ancestry.

Because of this Cisco case, employees at Google’s parent company Alphabet, operating under the Alphabet Workers Union label, previously called on the tech giant to apply its Indian caste-based anti-discrimination policies in the US, writing: “Alphabet can lead the industry and become the first tech company.” , which adds caste as a protected category worldwide.”

The Equity Lab, a nonprofit organization that studies inequality issues, found in a 2016 survey of South Asian Americans that one in four caste-oppressed people faced physical and verbal abuse, and one in three faced educational discrimination and two out of three discrimination in the workplace.

During her 10 years on the city council, Sawant has campaigned on a range of labor rights issues and dealt with big tech, including pushing for a “poll tax” on Amazon and other large companies. She announced last month that she would not seek re-election after her term expires in late 2023.

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