Race is one of the nine protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act 2010. Currently, the definition of race makes it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of colour, nationality or ethnic or national origin. However, could it also be unlawful to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their caste?
Caste is the ancient Indian class divide based on race and religion. The existing discrimination legislation does not include caste as a protected characteristic, nor is it specifically covered by the definition of race. Nevertheless, discrimination and harassment on the grounds of caste is arguably within the remit of race discrimination as the existing definition is not exclusively limited to colour, nationality and ethnic or national origin. Even so, there have been no known cases claiming race discrimination on the grounds of caste until recently when the first case of its kind was filed.
Mr & Mrs Begraj both worked for Heer Manak, a firm of solicitors. Mrs Begraj, a solicitor, was from a higher caste than Mr Begraj, the firm’s practice manager. Mr & Mrs Begraj met at work and before they married, one of Mrs Begraj’s colleagues suggested that she reconsider her marriage as people of Mr Begraj’s caste were “different creatures”. Mr & Mrs Begraj claim that they were both treated less favourably once they were married. Mrs Begraj claims that she was given more work but paid less money than her colleagues and given less secretarial support. Mr Begraj was dismissed after working for the firm for seven years and Mrs Begraj eventually resigned in response to the way that she was treated. Their employer denies that there was any wrongdoing.
No decision has been made on this case and it has been postponed to March 2012. However, Mr & Mrs Begraj claim that the discrimination which they allegedly suffered should fall within the ambit of race in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. Will the Tribunal agree? The outcome of this case may clear up some of the uncertainty about whether caste is covered by existing legislation.
At this time, the Government is also reviewing its policy on discrimination and harassment to consider whether caste should be added as a ground for discrimination. The Equality Act 2010 expressly includes a power for the Government to extend the definition of race to include caste. In considering whether it should exercise its power, the Government commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to look into the existence of discrimination and harassment on the grounds of caste. They found that caste awareness is heavily concentrated in people with roots in the Indian sub-continent, and this represents about 5% of the UK population. Will the Government consider this to be a big enough problem to change its current thinking? Who knows? But what is known at this time is that caste discrimination is certainly something that exists and the coming months will hopefully offer some clarification about the extent to which the law will offer protection on the grounds of caste.
If you would like to talk through a situation you are dealing with, or if you need advice on any aspect of employment law, please contact any member of the Pure Employment Law team (01243 836840 or [email protected])