An employment tribunal case which ruled a woman had been discriminated against because of her caste gives a “warning” to employers to ensure they are recruiting, paying and promoting on merit, an employment lawyer has said.

Permila Tirkey, recruited from India and paid just 11p an hour to be a cleaner and nanny for a family in the UK, was this week awarded £184,000 in unpaid wages in what has been described as “the first successful case of its kind.”

Daniel Ellis, a partner in the employment department at Baker & McKenzie LLP, said that while the case would most likely impact low-paid, low-skilled domestic workers such as Tirkey, it “continues to be a sensible warning to businesses to always ensure they are acting on merit and reasonable grounds and no other grounds”.

The case against Tirkey’s employers was dismissed before going to an Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) in January 2015.

Tirkey originally claimed compensation for direct and indirect race discrimination, harassment and discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. In May 2013 her claim was amended to say the treatment she received was because of her ethnic or national origins, combining those aspects with status, caste and descent.

Her employer said the claim should be struck out because the Equality Act 2010 does not specifically include caste. However, The EAT upheld the case, ruling that ethic origin included caste, and sent the case back to the employment tribunal. The tribunal has now found in favour of Tirkey and awarded her nearly £184,000 compensation.

The tribunal heard that Tirkey’s family are Adivasi people of “low caste” and her employers, the Chandhok’s, had made her work for 18-hours a day, seven days a week, as a domestic servant.

The case has implications for the Equality Act and could pave the way for further caste discrimination cases, legal experts have said.

There has been an ongoing debate about the issue, with the coalition government passing legislation in 2013 for parliament to amend the legislation to include caste, but no timeframe was given for this amendment.

Baker & McKenzie’s Ellis said the ruling in the Tirkey v Chandhok may remove the need for a law change altogether: “The law already includes ethic origin and there has been a belief for some time that ethnic origin would probably include caste but it wasn’t clear,” he said.

“What the case and the EAT decision did is to avoid the need for express legislation but there are still a lot of question marks around what caste is, and how broad that is. The government may still decide to legislate to clear some of those points up, such as what you need to show to be in a particular caste,” he added.

Chris Milsom, the Cloisters barrister acting on behalf of the claimant, said: “Those who have closely followed the legislative history of the Equality Act will recall that the government’s original rationale for refusing explicit prohibition of caste-based discrimination was that there was no evidence of it taking place in the UK. The damning findings of the employment tribunal render that stance untenable. Where such discrimination exists its victims must be protected.”

Ellis said the UK could expect to see further caste discrimination cases being brought to tribunal, but added recent changes to employment tribunal fees could act as a barrier to the low-paid workers this case is likely to impact.

In addition, the possibility that those affected may not speak good English or understand their legal rights could also be a barrier to similar cases being hear, he said.

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