When Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant introduced legislation this week to ban caste discrimination in Seattle, her supporters included tech workers who say the system of bias and oppression has followed them from South Asia to the U.S. and Seattle.
Sawant’s proposed legislation would be a first-in-the-nation attempt to address a social practice that is rooted in thousands of years of history in India and other countries. The socialist councilmember representing Seattle’s District 3 said workers, including in the tech sector, face discrimination in their workplaces in Seattle and other cities around the country.
Caste is a system of social hierarchy and class discrimination with barriers that create social segregation, economic deprivation and even physical or psychological violence, according to Sawant.
“With over 167,000 people from South Asia living in Washington, largely concentrated in the Greater Seattle area, the region must address caste discrimination, and not allow it to remain invisible and unaddressed,” Sawant said this week.
In her 10 years on the City Council, Sawant has championed a number of workers’ rights issues and has taken on big tech, including the push for a “head tax” on Amazon and other big businesses. She announced last week that she won’t seek re-election when her term is up at the end of 2023.
During a news conference about the caste legislation at Seattle City Hall on Tuesday (video below), Sawant was flanked by supporters who included members of the tech community, which has a large concentration of South Asian immigrants.
Samir Khobragade, a former Amazon engineer and current senior director of software engineering for cloud platforms at NetApp, has worked in tech for 26 years. He said he grew up in a small, socially segregated mining town in the middle of India, and he detailed the separation and discriminatory practices he encountered throughout his youth.
Without going into specifics related to his time in the U.S. or at any of his workplaces, Khobragade said the discrimination followed him when he emigrated.
“South Asians are a critical part of the city of Seattle, because of the tech industry, because of the universities here,” Khobragade said. “When we Indians come to the U.S., we bring our biases with us, and we get away with the discriminatory behavior because people in the U.S. do not know how to spot this discriminatory behavior.”
Madrona Venture Group managing director S. “Soma” Somasegar has been around the tech industry for 34 years, including nearly three decades at Microsoft, where he was head of the tech giant’s Developer Division.
“Any kind of discrimination is bad, whether it’s gender or religion or ethnicity or caste or color,” Somasegar told GeekWire on Thursday, while acknowledging that caste-based discrimination is still quite prevalent in different parts of the world.
Somasegar said he hasn’t personally seen caste bias in the technology community in Seattle or in the U.S.
“The question though, if I have 100 priorities in front of me, where does this fall on the priority list?” Somasegar said. “My experience has been more positive than what this piece of legislation might suggest.”
But Raghav Kaushik, a software engineer at Microsoft for 19 years, said during the Sawant’s news conference, “I can tell you from my personal experience that caste discrimination happens here in the tech sector.”
Kaushik said that in 2006, when the Indian government announced an affirmative action program to help oppressed caste people, the topic was discussed in an email thread at Microsoft.
“There were various employees who expressed very bigoted and hideous comments mocking caste oppressed people and Dalits, questioning their intelligence and work ethics,” Kaushik said. “Caste discrimination exits right here in our midst.”
One alleged case of caste discrimination in the tech industry has turned into a notable lawsuit in California, where a former worker at Cisco Systems claims he was a victim of discrimination because of his low caste standing.
Bloomberg Law reported that the unnamed worker claimed supervisors at Cisco’s San Jose, Calif., headquarters excluded him from meetings and passed him up for promotions due to his status as part of the Dalit caste, considered the lowest rung of the hierarchical South Asian system.
The lawsuit is testing California’s anti-discrimination statute that includes protection for discrimination based on ancestry.
On the strength of that Cisco case, workers at Google parent Alphabet, under the Alphabet Workers Union label, previously called on the tech giant to apply its Indian caste-based anti-discrimination policy in the U.S, writing, “Alphabet can lead the industry and become the first technology company to add caste as a protected category globally.”
The Equity Lab, a nonprofit that takes on issues of inequity, found in a 2016 survey of South Asian Americans that one in four caste-oppressed people faced physical and verbal assault, one in three faced education discrimination, and two in three (67%) faced workplace discrimination.
The organization said in a tweet that Sawant’s proposed legislation “is a groundbreaking opportunity for Seattle to lead the nation in caste equity and honor its history of being a safe space for all.”
Sawant linked this latest fight to the ongoing layoffs in the tech sector.
“The billionaire and multimillionaire shareholders and executives of corporations like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have made billions of dollars in profit since the pandemic began, and now they are once again shoving the burden of the capitalist recession on working people, by laying off tens of thousands of tech workers,” she said, adding that she stands “in solidarity with tech workers who want to get organized to fight back.”