March 2023: Seattle Becomes First City in Nation to Ban Caste Discrimination

08 Mar


Update Applicable to:
All employers in the city of Seattle, Washington.

What happened?
On February 21, 2023, the city council of Seattle voted to add “caste” to the city’s anti-discrimination laws, known as City Bill 120511 (CB 120511).

What are the details?
Caste is a complicated and fluid term. The word derived from Portuguese and was first applied to complex systems of social organization in the Indian Continent that early Portuguese explorers did not understand well.

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.

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 and 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 posing employers.

Once the bill goes into effect, employers must be ready to address complaints from employees citing discrimination, harassment, or retaliation based on caste. Employers will be prohibited from engaging in such unlawful conduct, and – more importantly – must also ensure other employees do not engage in the same. Because managers or employees may treat each other differently because of caste, affirmative education and outreach within the workplace may be required. Employers should also be prepared to consider caste in performing disparate impact analyses in the context of layoffs that implicate Seattle employees.

CB 120511 will become effective 30 days after it receives the Seattle Mayor’s signature.

For more information, please see the links below:

City Bill 120511 (CB 120511).

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What do employers need to do?
Employers should review the links above and update their policies and procedures to include caste unless those materials already protect employees broadly based on any protected class established by local law. Employers should work to ensure human resources personnel understand caste and are prepared to learn more from employees that bring caste-based complaints to them.

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