The caste system is a traditional social stratification, which has its roots in the Hindu tradition although, according to a 2014 article in the Equal Opportunities Review, caste differentiations are connected with all of the major religions in South Asia – including Christianity and Buddhism. They encompass various classes which are connected with traditional occupations and are ranked on a perceived scale of ritual purity.
It was in 2010 that the government commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to investigate the subject. Its subsequent report identified evidence which highlighted caste discrimination and harassment of the type covered by the Equality Act in education and in the workplace – in both cases bullying was a large factor.
The discrimination and harassment was found to have been carried out by higher castes against lower castes, and the report estimated that the size of the low-caste population in Britain bordered around 200,000.
As such, since the beginning of 2015, employees who believe they suffered discrimination and/or harassment at the hands of their employer on account of their caste have been able to bring a race discrimination claim in the employment tribunal. However, it has not been until recently that the UK faced such a claim.
Permila Tirkey was kept in domestic servitude by Ajay and Pooja Chandhok in Milton Keynes and was forced to work as a cleaner and nanny. Her employers were found to have made her work for 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
The tribunal found that the Chandhoks went to India to recruit Tirkey because “they wanted someone who would be not merely of service but servile”. They did not seek to recruit a UK resident “because no such person would have accepted the intended conditions of work”.
Tirkey said: “I want the public to know what happened to me as it must not happen to anyone else. The stress and anxiety that this sort of thing creates for a person can destroy them. I have not been able to smile because my life had been destroyed. Now I am able to smile again. Now I am free.”
Her barrister, Chris Milsom of Cloisters, suggested that those who have closely followed the legislative history of the Equality Act will recall that the government’s original rationale for refusing explicit prohibition of caste-based discrimination was that there was no evidence of it taking place in the UK.
“The damning findings of the employment tribunal render that stance untenable,” he said. “Where such discrimination exists its victims must be protected.”
The employment tribunal has now awarded Tirkey £183,774 for unpaid wages, as she was not paid the national minimum wage.
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