Caste is a form of class system traditionally associated with the culture of the Indian sub-continent, however, people worldwide live by this hierarchy of social standing. Broadly, caste is fixed at birth and individuals stay in their initial ranking for life, regardless of their aspirations or actual achievements. Each caste is traditionally associated with particular occupations, and marriage within caste is expected. The Government has acknowledged that almost half a million people in the UK whose background is Dalit - the lowest caste status - face discrimination.
Research into the extent of caste discrimination within the UK has caused the Government to review current arrangements for its legal recognition and although caste discrimination is not currently specifically provided for by the Equality Act, extension may be on the horizon. This amendment could be achieved when the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill becomes law.
Although not specifically included, the scope of the ‘race’ protected characteristic was to be tested in the first case of caste discrimination in a tribunal early this year. This would have given us some indication as to whether or not the current system provides relevant protection therefore negating the need for legislative amendment. However, the case collapsed after the employment judge withdrew herself from the case after an occurrence of violent behaviour against one of the witnesses.
When the Equality Act was drafted, it contained a clause allowing the Government to easily include caste explicitly within scope. During the latest discussions on the Bill, the House of Lords moved to enable this clause. This must now be agreed by the House of Commons at the next discussion stage, however, it may be that no agreement will be reached on the House of Lords proposal. Instead, it may be that the House of Commons decide to approach the issue through an educative approach rather than legislation. This would mean raising awareness of caste discrimination and the avenues available for individuals who feel that have been the subject of detrimental treatment because of their caste.
The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill is nearing the completion of its discussions but there still remains time for a change of tack.
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By Nicola Mullineux