Kshama Sawant
Kshama Sawant This article is more than 6 months old

Labour and Community Organizers Push for BC to Ban Caste-Based Discrimination

BC campaign against caste-based discrimination follows efforts in Ontario and Seattle

Labour and community organizers in BC are advocating for provincial legislation against caste-based discrimination. Organizers are also calling for protections within BC school boards, city councils, and labour organizations.

Caste is a hierarchical structure of oppression and class-based system of exclusion used in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora. The system reinforces class divides in the workplace and can be used as a way to segregate or discriminate against workers.

So far in BC, the New Westminster Teachers’ Union, the Surrey Teachers’ Association, the New Westminster District Labour Council, the Vancouver District Labour Council, and Burnaby City Council have all passed resolutions relating to caste-based discrimination.

In March of this year, a BC man was also awarded $9,000 by the BC Human Rights Tribunal after he was the victim of caste-based discrimination in the workplace.

“We want the campaign against caste discrimination to be something that goes all the way to the provincial government so that the BC Human Rights Code is changed and is amended to include a ban on caste discrimination,” Dominic Pistor, a teacher in New Westminster and a member of Socialist Alternative Canada told PressProgress.

In October, the Ontario Human Rights Commission published an official policy position on caste-based discrimination and recommended all organizations and levels of governments create protections. Prior to this, the Toronto District School Board was the first in Canada to implement protections against caste-based discrimination in March.

Efforts in Canada followed a campaign in the US, where Seattle became the first North American city to explicitly ban caste-based discrimination in February. The Seattle decision came after a city council vote spearheaded by councilor Kshama Sawant.

“Tech workers in Seattle were the ones who brought this to Kshama. They came to her and said, ‘this is a big problem and we want your help in addressing it,’” Leslie Kemp, an organizer with Socialist Alternative Canada, told PressProgress.

“It comes from workers themselves who are experiencing caste discrimination in their workplace but it can happen in schools, it can happen in a lot of different public spaces.”

The caste system was banned in India in 1950, but Anita Lal, Co-founder of the Poetic Justice Foundation, says that while some may try to brush caste-based discrimination off as a “thing of the past,” it is still very much an issue in BC.

“It’s not talked about anywhere yet it’s experienced. It’s experienced through social settings, it’s experienced in your places of work, in your places of play, in your places of worship,” Lal told PressProgress.

“For somebody who comes from a caste-oppressed background, it is very violent and it is very loud. Change only happens when there’s policy changes and there’s actual structural changes to something.”

Kemp adds that the decision demonstrates a need for the labour movement to consider the ways that caste discrimination shows up in the workplace.

“We need a strong labour position on this,” Kemp said.

“This is an important thing for workers. It’s important for the working class and it’s important to ensure the rights of all.”

The BC Human Rights Tribunal’s decision earlier this year empowers the community to name the oppression they face, Lal explains.

“When something, especially something as big as the Human Rights Tribunal comes in and says, ‘that’s not allowed here,’ and there’s a reprimand for it, it disrupts the norm. It shakes it up, and it empowers the community,” Lal said.

“These movements right now are so important because it’s actually giving a voice to something which exists, which is blatantly obvious, but silenced.”

Lal adds that she’s heard countless testimonies—ranging from school-aged children who have experienced caste-based exclusion and adults in the workplace who have faced discrimination.

“These things that we’ve normalized within our community, if taken out of this community and put somewhere else, you’d be like, ‘holy smokes, that’s discrimination, that shouldn’t be allowed,” Lal said.

“We’re letting in more international students or we’re letting in more immigrants because we need more labour, so we need to also protect this labour that comes in here.”

Pistor, who was involved in getting an anti-caste discrimination resolution passed by the New Westminster Teachers’ Union, says this issue highlights the need for unions to step up against all forms of discrimination.

“This is part of the broader kind of conversation of how do labour unions fit into social justice and advocacy work in our broader society?” Pistor said.

“You can only reach so many people by standing on a street corner. But if you talk to unions, unions are democratic organizations in our society. And by moving these resolutions through them, we get to have those conversations with folks inside their workplaces and how it applies to their everyday.”

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Rumneek Johal
Rumneek Johal is PressProgress' BC Reporter. Her reporting focuses on systemic inequality, workers and communities, as well as racism and far-right extremism.

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