Legal clarity needed on 'caste discrimination', say law experts
First wrongful dismissal claim based on caste raises questions
An Indian couple who worked at a Coventry-based law firm have become
the first to cite caste discrimination in a wrongful dismissal case.
Amardeep Begraj and Vijay Begraj told an employment tribunal in
Birmingham that Heer Manak Solicitors treated them differently after
they were married because they are from different castes.
Mrs Begraj, a former solicitor at the firm, is from the higher caste
of Jat, while her husband, the former practice manager, is a member of
the Dalit caste, also called the 'untouchables'.
The couple met at the firm but Mrs Begraj said that a senior colleague
had later told her to reconsider marrying Mr Begraj because people of
his caste were 'different creatures'.
Following the marriage, Mrs Begraj claims she was given more work,
less secretarial support and less pay than other solicitors at the
company. Then Mr Begraj was dismissed after seven years at the firm
and his wife resigned in January this year.
In a statement, employer Heer Manak denied discriminating against the couple.
The caste system is an ancient Indian class divide based on race and
religion but it is not specifically recognised in British
However, home secretary Theresa May is holding an ongoing consultation
about whether or not to include it in the Equality Act.
Alan Chalmers, partner at DLA Piper, said: "At the moment it's unclear
whether caste discrimination is unlawful at all in the UK, and this
case may go some way to establishing that it is.
"The government could remove uncertainty if it changed the Equality
Act to specifically say that caste discrimination is unlawful.
"The Equality and Human Rights Commission position is that it's
already covered, but I think it would be sensible to avoid dispute for
there to be some clarity on the situation, whether through this case
or through a change to the law."
Audrey Williams, partner, HR group and head of discrimination law at
Eversheds, said: "Caste discrimination creates a challenge in how you
define it. Look at where we are in this country with religion and
belief discrimination; we are still going through cases that are
testing the boundaries on that."
She said that the UK could look to existing legislation in India for
guidance. But caste distinctions are much more recognised in that
jurisdiction compared to the UK, she added.
"The other question is: 'Do we need legislation to fill a gap?'" asked
Williams. "Our race discrimination provisions talk about unlawful
treatment because of ethnicity, and I think it's quite difficult to
categorise all the forms of caste discrimination into the ethnic
origin definition. Not every potential caste issue will fit easily
into definitions of ethnic origin."
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