Seattle Becomes First City in Nation to Ban Caste Discrimination

By Radhika Mehta and Jeremy F. Wood © Fisher Phillips February 23, 2023

​The Seattle City Council voted to pass a bill that adds caste to the categories of people protected from discrimination in various arenas, including employment, housing and public accommodations.

While a small number of colleges have prohibited caste discrimination in admissions and internal employment, Seattle is the first jurisdiction to do so as a matter of law.

CB 120511 bans employers from making workplace-related decisions based on any "system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion." To ensure you comply with the new law and protect the rights of this new class, you may need to familiarize yourself with how caste appears in traditions you may not know well.

Caste in the Employment Context

Caste is a complicated and fluid term. The word derives from Portuguese and was first applied to complex systems of social organization in the Indian subcontinent that early Portuguese explorers did not well understand.

In Hinduism and related religious traditions, it refers to two concepts. First, it refers to the four "varnas" that stratify society. These include the Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (merchants and farmers), and Shudras (artisans and laborers), as well as those with no caste, the Dalits (formerly referred to as "untouchables") and Adivasi (indigenous peoples of India).

Second, it refers to the thousands of "Jātis," which are traditional groups of people in India bound together by occupation, geography, or descent. According to one independent study, two thirds of Dalits have reported suffering caste-based discrimination in the workplace.

Seattle's Broad New Law

While CB 120511 primarily aims to protect those facing discrimination based on their varna or jāti, it extends much further than that. Its findings note that caste-based discrimination appears in Christian and Muslim communities, as well as in communal traditions within Japan, the Middle East, Nigeria, Somalia, and Senegal. The full extent of caste as a statutory term for Seattle employers thus remains unclear, adding to the complexity for employers.

CB 120511 will become effective 30 days after it receives the Seattle mayor's signature. If it does, you will have to be ready to address complaints from employees citing discrimination, harassment, or retaliation based on caste.

Employers will be prohibited from engaging in unlawful discrimination. Because managers or employees may already treat each other differently because of caste, this may require affirmative education and outreach within the workplace. Employers should be prepared to consider caste in performing disparate impact analyses in the context of layoffs that implicate Seattle employees.

While waiting for CB 120511 to come into effect, employers should update policies and procedures to include caste, unless those materials already protect employees broadly based on any protected class established by local law. You should work to ensure HR personnel have some understanding of caste and are prepared to learn more from employees that bring caste-based complaints to them.

Radhika Mehta and Jeremy F. Wood are attorneys with Fisher Phillips in Seattle. © 2023. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



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