Breaking Caste Barriers: Creating an Inclusive Labor Market

Mr. Sandeep Chachra

Caste System is not merely division of labor. It is also a division of laborers. Civilized society undoubtedly needs division of labor. But in no civilized society is division of labor accompanied by this unnatural division of laborers into water-tight compartments

Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

As our society moves towards greater inclusivity, diversity and justice, breaking the traditional linkage between caste and occupation becomes even more crucial. Mindful of this challenge our Constitution devoted four of its five articles on the Right to Equality to the caste issue and justice in the world of work has also been emphasized in the Directive Principles. Along with these constitutional provisions India has passed laws prohibiting caste-based discrimination.

These include the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which protects historically marginalized communities from discrimination, violence, and social exclusion. The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, now incorporated in The Code on Wages, which prohibits discrimination in employment and wages based on caste, among other factors. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, seeks to end the practice of manual scavenging.

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act seeks to end all forms of unfree labor, closely linked with the caste system. Acts like the Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act aim to eliminate and end the practice of girls, mostly belonging to Dalit and other marginalized caste communities, being “married” to deities or temples, often leading to exploitation and forced sex work.

However, despite the strong legal framework built to abolish caste-based discrimination, occupations linked with particular castes, the caste system and the structural biases and forms of discrimination it embeds in our society, polity and economy continues to force Dalits and scheduled tribes to work in degraded occupations facing terrible working conditions, including threat to life, low wages, and access to social security. We see the range of caste-linked occupations to include priests in temples to services such as burial/cremation services, removal of waste, begging, sex work and other every day services.

To put an end to caste-based discrimination, oppression and exploitation, we need strong action on multiple fronts. While we have seen strides on the legal, social and political arenas, there is urgent need to remove the economic disadvantages that Dalits and other marginalized sections have faced and continue to face. This calls for ensuring they have economic assets and access to sustainable livelihoods.

In rural areas we have to ensure that the long-forgotten agenda of land reforms is reignited and all landless rural households get housing and homestead land, all landless agricultural workers get land for cultivation. Communities having traditional access to natural resources including water bodies, pasture land and forest land have individual and community-based titles to these lands. This was very much envisaged in the Forest Rights Act, but has been stalled in implementation.

In urban areas and in the world of work in general, we need to secure the rights of informal workers who constitute more than 90% of the working people. They need assured incomes through decent wages and access to social security. In a context where we are facing jobless and job-loss growth, we need to invest into feminist solidarity economies to help informal workers secure meaningful sustainable employment. We need to revitalize reservations by extending it across the private sector, including across all public services being provided by private agencies including education and health services.

India must see the full annihilation of caste in the economic sphere and in the world of work. It is imperative to monitor and strongly outlaw caste-based work in all its forms, a practice of discrimination embedded in society and supported or overlooked by the state. We need to ensure those who are condemned to such work at the lowest end are liberated and rehabilitated fully in other decent work.  This will be an important step in creating inclusive labor markets and level playing fields for the youth of India.

Mr. Sandeep Chachra is the Executive Director of ActionAid Association.

The article was first published in the dailyhunt as Rethinking Caste Based Work: Towards an inclusive labour market

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Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Shubhika Rathi, a research intern at IMPRI

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