ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Caste on UK Shores

Legal Lessons from the Diaspora

This article applauds the judgment of the Employment Tribunal at Cambridge for understanding caste as race discrimination while granting unpaid dues to an Adivasi woman employed as a domestic servant by an upper-caste Indian family in the United Kingdom. The dismal conditions of work and wages of domestic labour in India are linked to the caste system from which emanates the low worth of manual work.

I wish to thank Rajdeep Pakanati for motivating me to write on this topic and Amala Dasarathi for prompt research assistance.

The judgment of the Employment Tribunal in the United Kingdom (UK) on 17 September 2015 has extended the protection of the Equality Act 2010 to those affected by caste oppression. At the onset, P Tirkey v Mr and Mrs Chandhok (2015) looks like a typical case of claiming employment dues under the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. No overt instances of ill-treatment—physical or sexual violence, bondage, starvation—are noted in this case. It is a seemingly unremarkable case and, therefore, startling in the discoveries it makes about the conditions of domestic labour within an Indian upper-caste family residing in the UK, and its undeniable connection with the caste practices and normativity prevalent in India. The issues in this case are located in three premises: first, employment regulations, such as the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 and the Working Time Regulations 1998; second, how domestic labour relations are caste relations; and third, treatment of discrimination against lower castes as race discrimination for the purpose of the Equality Act 2010.

The claimant, Permila Tirkey, an Adivasi Christian woman from rural Bihar, described herself as belonging to the “servant class” and “lower caste” before the Employment Tribunal in Cambridge (hereinafter, the tribunal) that heard the matter on 13 to 17 July and 20 to 22 July 2015. She had received only basic education as she was expected to be a domestic servant in the wealthier parts of India. She was employed by the Chandhoks in 2008 at the time their twins were born, and was brought to the UK to their Milton Keynes residence. The tribunal in its 50-page judgment lists out the irregularities and legal violations in her employment. After having made a promise, in her visa application, that a separate room with a bathroom will be offered to her, her employers failed to provide her reasonable living space for the five years of her tenure. She slept in the landing, with no privacy, or with the children so she could tend to them during the night. She slept on a foam mattress and never had a bed. She did not eat with the family but cooked for herself after 9 pm and ate in the kitchen.

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