Sikhs, finding religious freedom on the road, take outsize role in American trucking

The trucking industry has attracted generations of Americans by offering good salaries for work that allows drivers to e...

(RNS) — More and more of America’s truck drivers are wearing turbans, as a growing community of Punjabi-born drivers, the majority of whom are Sikhs, play an increasingly outsize role in one of America’s fastest-growing industries. 

The trucking industry has attracted generations of Americans by offering good salaries for work that allows drivers to essentially be their own bosses. That workplace freedom has drawn many Sikhs in the Sikh American community to pursue trucking. Beginning in the early 1990s and picking up steam after 2009, Sikhs have become an important part of the U.S. trucking scene. 

“For many Sikhs, trucking offers independence,” said Satnam Singh, a finance specialist at Global Truck Loans in Westborough, Massachusetts, and a Sikh. “You can pray whenever you want and you can observe the articles of faith. And like any other recent immigrant community, they want to work hard and earn good money.”...

...Despite being removed from the discrimination many Sikhs face in more stationary jobs, Sikh truckers aren’t entirely spared. Paramjit Singh Sandhu, a driver with 20 years of experience, was prevented from taking a urine drug test in December when he refused to remove his dastar, the turban worn by observant Sikhs.

A representative of the Sikh Coalition told RNS said the issue was successfully resolved early in 2021, but the trucking industry’s push to replace urine tests with hair sample testing looms as another obstacle for Sikh drivers: Sikhs are opposed on religious grounds to cutting their hair. 

“Basically, things are good for truckers,” says Raman Dhillon, CEO of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association. Dhillon initially wanted to pursue a technology career and studied IT at university, but soon after completing school, he joined the family business...

...The burgeoning number of Sikhs has begun to shape the landscape of the highway. Over the last five years, a cluster of vegetarian and Punjabi restaurants have sprung up across the country to service Sikh drivers’ ethical practices and culinary tastes. The majority of them are clustered along the I-40 corridor that runs east from California, where Dhillon said 40% of the truckers who move the state’s prodigious produce output are Sikh, ending in North Carolina. A handful of Sikh houses of worship, called gurdwaras, have popped up nearby or are attached to the eateries.

In January, Siddarth Mahant, a Sikh American former driver, was appointed to the Department of Transportation’s Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee by President Biden.

“It is more a social initiative than anything,” said Mahant, “to be the voice of the trucking industry and their needs. A lot of people don’t understand the drivers or they have never run a company or been a driver. I have been both, so I understand the day-to-day problems.” 

Mahant said many Sikhs see truck driving as a short-term opportunity to make cash toward launching a second business, in trucking or an aligned industry, even agriculture.

“This is an industry where within one or two generations, many Sikhs have gone from immigrants fleeing persecution to working a blue-collar job as a truck driver that earns them good money. Often these same drivers go into white-collar jobs in trucking equipment, finance or another industry entirely,” Singh said.

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