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Your Name/Surname Can Kick You Out From Interview Room

The oppressed communities encounter with caste in not only ‘purity and pollution’ forms of stigmatization but also in forms of conscious discrimination in the job market.

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Much has been written on caste. How can one forget Rohith Vemula; his institutional murder was a substantive injustice by caste and its defenders. Right from the vedic age to the post-colonial India, scholars across various disciplines – sociology, anthropology, history and even economics- have expounded on theories of caste and how caste distorts rationality and manufactures ingrained prejudice and graded inequality. From caste being relegated to ‘a thing of the past’ and an ‘import/invention of the British colonialism’ and to more recent assertion that caste is weakening in 21st century and a mere rural phenomenon, scholars have differed in their perspectives. Despite ambivalent positions of scholars on caste, what is important to note is that the oppressed communities encounter with caste in not only ‘purity and pollution’ forms of stigmatization but also in forms of conscious discrimination in the job market. In other words, caste pervades even the labor market, in addition to cultural and social institutions. It is the labor market which determines one’s livelihood prospects and explains much of economic inequality.

Exclusion and discrimination in the labor (job) market:

Social exclusion is a deliberate process of denying a group or an individual an equal access to opportunities by certain other group or an individual, which limits their ability to participate in the political, economic and social functioning of the society.  Discrimination is a particular kind of exclusion and can be active or passive. Active discrimination will shut down the participation of members of a social group despite their observationally equivalent endowments, say education, training, experiences or technical skills, while selectively favoring others. Active discrimination can happen through systematic refusal to hire a social group, say Dalits or Muslims. Through passive discrimination, the people are discouraged indirectly, say by limiting their access to education (the UGC gazette in JNU being a classic example here), and their confidence lowers which mars their performance.

Altonji and Blank (1999) define labor market discrimination “as a situation in which persons who provide labor market services and who are equally productive in a physical or material sense, are treated unequally in a way that is related to an observable characteristic race, ethnicity, or gender”. Caste is one of the monstrous social institutions in India, which manifests not only in socio-religious discrimination but also in economic discrimination in even a so-called capitalist economy. Dr. B.R Ambedkar[1], a stalwart of anti-caste revolution, identified caste as a system of hierarchically ordered occupational stratification, which typifies individuals to certain occupations based on their birth status and denies them choices and mobility. It creates not only a division of labor but also a division of laborers who are placed one above another in a hierarchical manner. Thorat and Deshpande (1999)[2] deal in lucid language with Ambedkar’s views on conceptualization of caste-based labor market discrimination. They write that Ambedkar identified creation of occupational classes as the result of Hindu social order which have no freedom to change their occupation. These occupational classes are inimical to the growth and mobility of individuals because they keep them isolated and excluded from partaking in other occupations. By creating occupational classes, the caste system of the Hindu social order has kept the labor market fragmented and produces graded inequality in the distribution of income and accumulation of wealth. Not only does it fix occupations, but it also fixes the wages of the deprived castes to the advantage of the privileged castes. Thus by restricting occupational mobility and fixing low level of wages, the caste system creates an economically weak group in the labor market with low bargaining power. Hence, caste in India plays fourfold roles in the labor market; 1) it assigns occupations based on birth and decent, 2) it locks people into certain occupations and denies them mobility, 3) it deprives them of equal social honor in organizations and 4) it leads to unequal pay for equal amounts/ types of works.

Thorat and Attewell (2007)[3] argue that those people who are in high positions in organizations develop a feeling that only a certain kind of person is effective in their role which leads many managers to practice nepotism with the people of similar social status. Social location of the oppressed communities becomes an agent of economic dispossession. In a similar fashion, Max Weber argued that the status groups in societies which enjoy different amounts of social honor – such as upper castes in India- limit their social intercourse to themselves and try monopolizing positions of economic affluences and power. By employing people of similar status groups and supporting them with all possible social networks, the status groups restrict the progress of lower castes. A stereotype such as reservation produces a pool of inefficient workers and lowers the productivity (kindly note that reservation in employment is limited to only public sector, which forms a tiny section of the Indian economy, and is day-to-day shrinking) , is a case of unfavorable exclusion of reserved castes from labor markets.

For an oppressed, it becomes difficult to prove the cases of exclusion and discrimination. Those who complain of being discriminated in the labor market based on social identities like race, ethnicity, caste, gender, religion, language and even sexual orientation, are often jibed at with the remarks ‘it’s all in your head’[4]. Nevertheless, several scholarly researches do testify to covert as well as overt practices of caste-based discrimination in the job market. Below I present a summary of three studies, which have been conducted to understand the pathways of caste discrimination in the Indian labor market. Two things should be noted; first these studies have come up recently at a time when India is celebrating its run on liberalization after big reforms of 1991, second these studies pertain to urban private sectors, where, to the illusions of caste-mongers, meritocracy decides selection.

First Study: Family background – A guise of caste discrimination

In the name of meritocracy, many firms and companies are resorting to discriminatory practices. Jodhka and Newman (2007)[5] make a pioneering study on the interview/hiring practices of organized private sector firms and elaborates employer’s perceptions of job candidates’ family background and regional characteristics. They do extensive interviews with 25 human resource managers of large firms based in New Delhi and National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi. Firms and hiring managers were asked about firm’s history, size of workforce, challenges in hiring process and they were also asked about their views on the reservation policy to know whether this should be extended to the private sector. The most striking finding in each interview was the view of all respondents that candidates should be selected on the basis of only merit without any regards to caste or creed.  Meritocracy was the single most concern of all interviewees, though some admitted to caste-based preferential selection, but they failed to, as authors note, understand that “the language of merit, the morally virtuous credo of competitive capitalism, subtracts from the conversation the many forms of institutional discrimination and disinvestment that prevent all members of a society from competing on a level playing field”. It was found that they see no contradiction in judging an individual on merit and valuing his/her family background. Asking questions on family background characteristics is a trick of employers to know about the ‘suitability’ of applicants. For Indian employers, “merit is formed within the crucible of the family.” One of the interviewees said that they ask candidates about family background because family, home, colony and villages and way they have had interactions, shape the personal traits of candidates and make them ‘professional’. By asking questions relating to family education, some siblings and parental occupation, they judge a candidate’s worthiness to the positions he/she has applied for. Sometimes, when employers can’t dig deeper into candidate’s qualities, they ask them about their family background because the successes of the rest of the candidate’s family evidence about the worthiness of the candidate. And if the desirable answers do not come up, candidates are looked upon doubtfully. The authors argue that screening candidates on the basis of family background characteristics would create employment barriers for those who come from the historically discriminated and marginalized communities because their families may not be able to obtain desirable educational and occupational traits. Various rounds of many survey reports have shown that SCs/STs and Muslims lag far behind than others in terms of income, wealth, land holdings, education and other socio-economic indicators, which vividly depict their entrenched economic distress. So, to ask them about family background is nothing but a covert tool of discovering one’s caste, and then pushing him/her out from ‘desirable/eligible candidates’ list under the garb of ‘not fit for the firm’.

At the same time, they note that this kind of preferential screening also affects candidates from high-class families, because they are sometimes perceived as aggressive and ‘pampered lazy’. But we should note it humbly that the cost of such screening on the basis of family background characteristics is much higher to Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims than to upper caste/class families because they can have good social connections and in-group networks. Employers are also biased towards certain regional characteristics that candidates carry with. There is a stereotyping of people from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana who may not be a stylish guy. In airline services industries, looks, fluency in English and openness are criteria of selection and people from certain regions like Punjab, Northeast are preferred.

Second Study: Equivalent educational background but unequal experiences during interview

The first study that assesses the journey from college to work of two groups of people in India who come from the same comparable educational institutions but different caste backgrounds (reserved or Dalits and non-reserved or non-Daits) is that of Deshpande and Newman (2007)[6]. This study, based on a qualitative field interview, discusses the job expectations, job search methods and the actual experiences of moving into the labor market of Dalits and non-Dalits from Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia- all located in Delhi. The authors find that Dalits are disadvantaged compared to non-Dalits -in terms of family connections, social networks and cultural capital- which help people to locate employment outside their family business. Though the two groups come from equivalent educational institutions, initial conditions in the form of low parental education, low-status parental occupation and lack of social and family connections make them have fewer expectations from the formal private sector. Dalit students were found to be less likely to depend on college campus placement units and more likely to depend on newspaper ads as these ads advertise about public sector jobs. As the authors contend, this confirms that Dalits prefer public sector/government jobs over the private sector. This also confirms, to my mind, that caste discrimination is more rampant in the private formal sector than the public sector.

During job interviews, the experiences of Dalits being asked about their family background are bad because they are asked unnecessary questions about their parental occupation and income. For Dalits, truthful answers to questions on family background can stigmatize them to the point of disqualification. Caste is identified from surnames and Dalit students know that their names can trigger questions which a non-Dalit student is never asked (the case of our friend Muthu Krishnan tells us clearly what happens in an interview room where all elite savarna bourgeoisies sit to gag on a dalit student). On the other hand, non-Dalit students reported to have far more favorable interviews and selection procedures than the reserved students. For the non-Dalit students, questions about family backgrounds were rarely interpreted as offensive because they found them to be innocuous and could give biographies which match the upper middle class professional ideal.

The authors suggest the hiring practices in the urban labor market are not transparent and they are influenced by the social and cultural capital which many people of the marginalized communities lack. The lack of reservation in the private sector, where meritocracy is judged from family background characteristics, puts the Dalit students on disadvantage.

Third Study: Caste and communal discrimination at screening stage

Religious and caste affiliations can produce ingrained prejudices and stereotypes in the minds of the employers/owners. A name is an identifier of a person’s religious identity and his/her caste background, surname especially more so in the latter case. Thorat and Attewell (2007)[7] did a first of its kind correspondence study on the job interviews in the private sector for which advertisements appeared in the English newspapers. They did not include the public sector and those jobs which required highly specialized skills. They focused only on those job positions which were entry-level or near entry-level, which a university graduate male( they did not include female) could get in the first few years of his graduation. To each job advertisement, they sent by emails three equally matched application letters and resumes, which had identical educational qualifications (degrees from reputed universities) and experiences. The resumes differed only in terms of the name of the male candidate with no specific mention of caste or religious background. In each matched set of resumes, one application had clearly a stereotypical Hindu high caste name, the second one had an identifiable Muslim name and the last had distinctively a Dalit name. Two sets of applications were sent to each firm; one for the job that required a bachelor’s degree and the other for the one which required a master’s degree. They found that both Dalits and Muslims have lower chances of being called in for interviews, compared to a high caste Hindu. Caste and religion have so influential bearing on the labor market outcomes that mere names were enough to trigger a differential response compared to high caste Hindus. It was just at the stage of interview calls that caste and communal discrimination are so evident, then we can’t help but be suspicious about final hiring. Note that the only information on family background characteristics which was revealed to the employers via emails was the name of applicants.

 

Conclusion

The evidence of ‘active exclusion’ of Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims from the formal private sectors, emerging from the cited studies make it clear that caste-consciousness of employers prejudices them against the ‘suitability’ of the marginalized communities, and this consciousness covertly reflects in questions about family background. Caste is not a thing of the past, but rather has been carried into present by linking efficiency and competence to family attributes or more precisely to names and surnames. ‘Introduce yourself’ which comes up first in almost all interview sessions is deeply casteist in its nature and exclusionary in its extant.

When the private sector is making up large chunks of employment, and public sector is being downsized day by day, there is a need to extend the reservation to the private sector for two simple reasons; to not let caste discrimination ruin the growth of Indian economy because caste is an unfee economic order, and secondly to protect the marginalized communities against discrimination in hiring practices. Unless discrimination persists, caste-based affirmative actions need to be deepened in spheres of education and employment. For meritocracy – the bandwagon of caste-blind – is not a function of merely individual talents, it is historic-determinist and policy-sensitive. Inter-historical periods of discrimination and untouchability and consequent inter-generational control/transfers of economic assets and wealth by upper castes, and current investments by the government in health, nutrition, education and sanitation – all determine the meritocracy. Thus we must question in the first place how merit is produced.

References 

[1] Ambedkar, B.R. (1979). Annihilation of Caste. In Vasant Moon (ed). Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Writings and Speeches, Vol. 1, Department of Education, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay.

[2] Thorat, S. K., & Deshpande, R. S. (1999). Caste and labour market discrimination. Indian Journal of Labour Economics42(4), 25-35.

[3] Thorat, S., & Attewell, P. (2007). The legacy of social exclusion: A correspondence study of job discrimination in India. Economic and Political Weekly, 4141-4145.

[4] Das, M. B. (2016). All in my head? The play of exclusion and discrimination in the labor market. Journal of International Commerce, Economics and Policy7(02), 1650011.

[5] Jodhka, S. S., & Newman, K. (2007). In the name of globalisation: Meritocracy, productivity and the hidden language of caste. Economic and Political Weekly, 4125-4132.

[6] Deshpande, A., & Newman, K. (2007). Where the path leads: The role of caste in post-university employment expectations. Economic and Political Weekly, 4133-4140.

[7] Thorat, S., & Newman, K. S. (2007). Caste and economic discrimination: causes, consequences and remedies. Economic and Political Weekly, 4121-4124

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