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An end to modern slavery?

by Tom Moyes
by Tom Moyes

A recent landmark employment law ruling in the UK’s first ‘Caste discrimination’ case.

What is Caste?

Caste systems involve the division of people into social groups. The idea of ‘caste’ is rooted in Hindu society and it is suggested that caste discrimination affects approximately 260 million people worldwide, the vast majority living in South Asia. The divisions which are determined by birth and are therefore hereditary lead to distinct inequalities, for example in the areas of wealth, rank or occupation.

Quick facts:

  • 39 year old Permila Tirkey was recruited from India to be a domestic servant for a British-Indian family in the UK;
  • In the four years Ms Tirkey spent in the UK she had been discriminated against because of her “low caste”;
  • It was alleged Ms Tirkey was hired due to her servile nature (due to the caste she belonged to) and that the family who hired her (Mr and Mrs Chandok) desired a servant who didn’t know English laws regarding employment;
  • The Chandok’s forced Ms Tirkey to work 24 hours a day 7 days a week to care for the family and carry out domestic chores; and
  • Ms Tirkey was paid as little as 11p per hour.

A landmark ruling

The Tribunal heard evidence that Ms Tirkey’s family were Adivasi which it defined as: dark-skinned and poor. Adivasi could be either Christian or Hindu and of the variety of castes in the “caste pyramid” they were the lowest class. The Tribunal accepted this evidence and Ms Tirkey further claimed that her ethnic origin, which included her hereditary position in society was the reason the Chandhoks’ treated her in the way they did.

Whilst the treatment Ms Tirkey received was a breach of her basic human rights, from an employment law perspective, the employment tribunal was concerned with whether Ms Tirkey’s employers had breached race discrimination laws in the way they had subjected her to poor treatment as a result of her ‘low caste’.

When Ms Tirkey originally brought her claim, her employer’s Mr and Mrs Chandok applied to strike out the case on the ground that ‘caste’ does not come within the definition of ‘race’ pursuant to the Equality Act 2010. The Employment Appeal Tribunal dismissed the appeal and sent the case back to be heard as a caste discrimination claim by the Tribunal.

The Employment Tribunal decided:

  • the conditions in which Ms Tirkey was forced to live and work was a “clear violation of her dignity” adding “it created an atmosphere of degradation which was offensive”;
  • Ms Tirkey was harassed on the grounds of her race, subjected to unacceptable working conditions and was the victim of indirect religious discrimination; and
  • to award Ms Tirkey £184,000 in unpaid wages.

What does this mean for employment law?

The ruling has clarified race discrimination laws and the hope is that other victims who are suffering race discrimination, directly or indirectly, at the hands of their employers will come forward to seek compensation.

Ms Tirkey has commented of the ruling “I want the public to know what happened to me as it must not happen to anyone else”. Whilst caste discrimination is yet to be specifically covered in anti-discrimination laws, viewed alongside the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which came into force earlier this year, it is hoped this ruling is another positive step towards ending modern day slavery here in the UK.

Tom Moyes, Blacks Solicitors, Partner, Employment Team
0113 227 9238

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