Addressing Caste-Based Discrimination in Employment - OHRC's Policy Perspective

** Written by Zura Nakiwoga, Articling Student at Lee Workplace Law

Understanding Caste-Based Discrimination

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has taken a significant step by issuing a comprehensive policy statement addressing "caste-based discrimination" under Ontario's Human Rights Code (Code). This approach addresses a form of discrimination that has often been overlooked within Canadian legal frameworks.

Caste-based discrimination stratifies individuals into hierarchical groups or "castes" based on perceived notions of spiritual purity and proximity to the divine. Those belonging to higher castes enjoy privileges and societal advantages over those in lower castes, perpetuating social inequality and marginalization. At the bottom of the caste hierarchy are the "dalits," or "untouchables," who face systemic oppression and exclusion from various social, economic, and political spheres. Some form of caste-based discrimination can occur in certain communities in Canada today, with implications on rights and interests pertaining to employment in Ontario.

Implications for Employment

Within the workplace, caste discrimination can manifest in several ways, including the denial of job opportunities, unequal treatment in recruitment and promotion processes, assignment of menial or undesirable tasks, and harassment based on caste identity. Caste discrimination can impact employment dynamics and create barriers and obstacles for individuals from marginalized caste backgrounds.

These discriminatory practices not only limit individuals' professional growth and advancement but also contribute to a hostile work environment and perpetuate systemic inequalities. Moreover, caste-based discrimination extends beyond the workplace, affecting individuals' access to housing, education, healthcare, and other essential services.

Coverage under the Human Rights Code

The OHRC's policy position on caste-based discrimination is crucial. Currently, the Code does not explicitly list "caste" as a protected ground. The OHRC is advocating for a broad and inclusive interpretation of existing Code grounds, such as race, ethnic origin, and ancestry, to address caste-related discrimination effectively. In doing so, it recognizes the multifaceted nature of discrimination, and its intersectionality with other protected grounds under the OHRC. By acknowledging caste-based discrimination as a violation of fundamental human rights, the OHRC underscores the importance of adopting a comprehensive and intersectional approach to combat discrimination within the workplace and broader society.

Legal Obligations for Employers

Employers play a pivotal role in addressing caste-based discrimination within the workplace. They are responsible for implementing proactive measures to prevent discrimination, including establishing clear anti-discrimination policies, providing comprehensive training to employees on diversity and inclusion, and fostering a culture of respect and equity. Furthermore, employers must actively address systemic biases and barriers within their organizations to ensure equal opportunities for all employees, regardless of caste background. This requires a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion principles and the creation of a supportive and inclusive work environment where individuals feel valued and respected.

Legal Obligations for Employees

In turn, employees also play an integral reciprocating role in advancing these policy measures. Employees have a legal obligation to adhere to anti-discrimination policies established by their employers and to contribute to fostering a workplace culture that is inclusive and free from discrimination. This includes challenging and/or reporting discriminatory behaviour, supporting colleagues who may be experiencing discrimination, and participating in diversity and inclusion initiatives aimed at promoting equality and respect in the workplace.

By fulfilling their legal obligations as employees, individuals contribute to creating a workplace environment that upholds human rights principles and fosters diversity and inclusion. This collective effort from both employers and employees is essential in effectively combating caste-based discrimination and promoting a workplace culture that values and respects the dignity of all individuals.

Conclusion and Policy Implications

While the OHRC's policy statement represents a significant milestone in the fight against caste-based discrimination, its effective implementation requires collective action from all stakeholders, including employers and employees. By recognizing and addressing caste-based discrimination within the employment context, Ontario demonstrates its commitment to upholding human rights and fostering a more inclusive and equitable society for all its residents. This proactive approach sets a precedent for other jurisdictions to follow suit in combating discrimination and promoting social justice and equality.