Addressing inequalities based on caste means stopping labour exploitation

by Nadia Saracini | Christian Aid
Thursday, 28 March 2019 15:30 GMT

People belonging to the Dalit community take part in a nationwide strike called by several Dalit organisations, in Kasba Bonli, Rajasthan, India, April 2, 2018. Picture taken April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Krishna N. Das

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The silence around caste and other forms of discrimination based on work and descent must be broken otherwise we will fail to achieve these and many other development goals

Nadia Saracini is Senior Advisor at Christian Aid on Inequalities in Asia and the Middle East and a co-author of the report Caste and Development: Tackling Discrimination Based on Work and Descent.

Caste discrimination is known to be the cause of some of the most extreme forms of deprivation, exclusion and rights violations, including modern slavery. Yet little is known about the forces that perpetuate it and the issue remains largely invisible in discussions around Agenda 2030 for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), despite its strong focus on addressing inequalities.

The evidence shows that caste, and the social norms that surround it, perpetuate power inequalities that are a barrier to social and economic mobility of the most excluded caste groups. This form of discrimination limits employment and educational opportunity, suppresses wages and reduces bargaining power. It also has a strong bearing on where a person can live and who they marry.

In South Asian countries and in some of their diaspora communities, such as in Malaysia, over 200 million people who are excluded and marginalised on the basis of their caste identity are concentrated in informal low-wage employment (often in conditions of slavery) and in poor quality housing, often segregated from the wider community.  

The people most affected by caste discrimination belong to different social groups that have long been oppressed and trapped in certain ‘traditional’ stigmatised jobs. Many are now identifying themselves as Dalits, an identity which is mobilising a political movement for their rights and equality. 

Various forms of exploitative labour continue to affect Dalits despite often being illegal, because those who benefit can operate with impunity and wield considerable power over those whose precarious livelihoods depend on them. 

Dalits are overwhelmingly found doing informal jobs where labour exploitation and modern slavery is rife, such as cleaning and sanitation work, agricultural labour, brick manufacture, construction work and garments manufacturing. Often health and safety standards are extremely poor or non-existent and people work in undignified and unsafe working conditions without access to social protection or labour rights.  Trends such as privatisation of public services and outsourcing of manufacturing have only served to increase their vulnerability.  Even worse, many thousands are bonded labourers who, having taken out high-interest loans to alleviate desperate poverty, are now faced with debts they can never realistically repay.

SDG Goal 10 aims for reduced inequalities, both within and among countries. While it’s well-known that caste hierarchies are a factor in the former, their role in the latter is given less consideration. This goal provides an important opportunity to learn how inequalities within countries are exploited in global trade, but also the means by which we can tackle them. 

Those who benefit from the cheap labour provided by Dalits and other socially marginalised groups include multi-national companies and, ultimately, consumers around the world who buy their products and services. Dalit communities, therefore probably make significant contributions to these global value chains, yet the exploitation of the labour of Dalits and other socially marginalised groups in global supply chains is little discussed and warrants further research, particularly as employment patterns in parts of South and South-East Asia still reflect how Britain, as a colonial power, uprooted many Dalits to work as labourers, often far from home. The descendants of many of these workers continue to produce goods (such as tea) for global markets under very unfavourable conditions.

Governments, NGOs and development partners need to take a more ‘caste-sensitive’ approach to sustainable development to help reduce inequalities.

It’s important for all of us to remember that the SDGs include targets for decent work for all and the eradication of slavery and forced labour. The silence around caste and other forms of discrimination based on work and descent must be broken otherwise we will fail to achieve these and many other SDG goals, and ultimately we risk leaving an already invisible group behind.