No; it’s not a spelling mistake! The Government is coming under increasing pressure from the UN, and as a result of an ongoing Employment Tribunal case, to add unfair treatment on grounds of caste to the list of types of racial discrimination. The Equality Act of 2010 currently has the provision to do this, but the subject is out for consultation at the moment, a fact that, I must admit, had passed me by.
Current interest in the subject has been stirred up by the Begraj case, which involves a British couple who, ironically, met whilst working for a law firm, Heer Manak Solicitors. The wife (who is of high caste) came under a lot of pressure not to marry her husband, who is from a lower caste but, in a clear case of amor omnia vincit, they got married, only to find that Mrs Begraj was – allegedly – given more work to do by her employer and provided with less support to help carry it out. Both of them also allege that they were the subject of hurtful remarks, although their employer denies all of the allegations, and describes them as “outrageous”. In the finest traditions of the Legal Profession it is turning into a long-running and (for the lawyers) lucrative engagement; the 10 days originally earmarked for the case have proved insufficient and a further hearing, for which 15 additional days have been allocated, is scheduled for the spring.
All very typical of a discrimination case, you might say, and I would probably agree. I must confess, however, to a feeling of unease about the rationale behind this particular claim. Firstly, I find it hard to see why the alleged acts of the employer constitute grounds for a race discrimination claim – both the Begrajs are of Indian ethnic origin. Secondly, I cannot see why any claim of this kind should be limited to one particular ethnic or cultural group. It’s true that the caste system is a rigid set of social conventions, with absolutely no flexibility built into it: once you are born, you are a member of a caste for life, in the same way that you are born to be Caucasian, Afro-Caribbean or Chinese. However, one could posit a very similar argument about discrimination on grounds of class in the UK – whilst not as rigid a demarcation, the fact is that many people are unfavourably treated because they have the wrong accent, or didn’t go to the right school – indeed, my plummy, patrician tones have prevented me getting several jobs in the Refuse Disposal Industry.
Many of Britain’s Industrial woes over the years have been attributed to blinkered management and pig-headed unions, constantly at loggerheads because of class differences. The most successful companies, in my opinion, are those who ignore class and social standing, and concentrate on being meritocracies where talent is the only reason for discriminating between employees. If the allegations made by Mr and Mrs Begraj are true, then their employer has been guilty of very poor behaviour, for which they deserve to be castigated, but race discrimination? I’m not so sure.