Sikhs, the new lions of the American trucking industry, get some timely coverage

Sikhs, we learn, are the new face in trucking.



In the category of cool-religion-stories-that-no-one-knows-about, we learn that America’s trucking industry driver shortage is getting some help from an unlikely religious group.

Didn’t know the industry is in trouble? That 48,000 more drivers are needed on America’s highways thanks to burgeoning demand in on-line shopping/shipping services?

If you’ve ever dodged a truck on an interstate, you know there’s a lot of them out there and that anything you wear or eat these days was probably brought to you via truck. So what is the religion angle here?

Sikhs have stepped up to fill the gap. And thanks to stories on Sikh websites and in trucking industry outlets, we can learn why. Here’s from Freight Waves:

The U.S. trucking industry is so massive that not only does it cater to myriads of different verticals, but also houses different ethnicities under its roof, who are part of the industry as truckers, owner-operators, fleet owners, and even as people in gas stations, truck stops, and maintenance sheds. In this mix, the Punjabis or rather the Sikh population have built themselves a bastion in the North American trucking market that is second to none.

Though the terms ‘Punjabi’ and ‘Sikh’ look quite interchangeable, they are essentially entities that cannot be compared on the same breath, as its akin to reasoning out between apples and oranges. Punjab is a geographic region, that is split between the countries of India and Pakistan, the meaning which translates to “the land of the five rivers.” Sikhism however, is a religion that originated in the Punjab region in the 15th century, with most of the followers of the faith living in the Indian part of Punjab.

The U.S. is home to half a million Sikhs, of which the Sikhs Political Action Committee estimates that around 150,000 of them work in the trucking industry - which makes the sector an overwhelming favorite amongst their populace. The statistics are interesting, to say the least. 90% of all the Sikhs in the trade are truckers, and Indians, in general, are ahead of other Asian nations, controlling nearly half of all Asian-owned trucking businesses in America. And as per the findings of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association (NAPTA), California is the ground zero of the Punjabi bulwark, with 40% of truckers in the region being Sikhs.

Readers may need a bit of history to put this in context.

Start here: India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 by her two Sikh bodyguards, causing waves of anti-Sikh violence all over India. Many Sikhs began emigrating at that point, landing in America, among other places.

Since then, there’s been no shortage of anti-Sikh violence here by people who confuse Sikhs and Muslims. Remember the Sikh gas station owner in Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was killed right after 9/11? And how, in 2012, a white supremacist called Wade Page killed six people in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc.?

CBS has done lots of reports on how the industry needs to hire 90,000 new truckers a year to fill the demand. The American trucker drives the American economy and last year, CBS came up with this story on why many Americans don’t want to do this job. There’s extended periods away from home; the pay isn’t great and you end up sleeping in the truck itself a lot of time, as seen at Iowa 80, the world’s largest truck stop near Davenport, Iowa.

It was while they were doing the above story that they learned about the entry of Sikhs into this arena. So they came up with the video atop this blog. Sikhs, we learn, are the new face in trucking.

But one group of drivers – Indian-Americans who practice the Sikh faith, truckers like Mintu Pandher – may well be a big part of the solution. More than 30,000 Sikhs have entered the trucking industry in the last two years.

"For Sikhs, they want to keep their articles of faith, turban, unshaven hair, beard, moustache – it's a safety hazard for a lot of jobs that require it. So in trucking they can keep everything, and still make a decent living," Pandher said.

Pandher, who owns a truck stop in Laramie, Wyo., has installed a Sikh temple there along with a restaurant serving Indian food.

Six years ago, when I moved to west Tennessee for two years, one of the first things I noticed was an Indian restaurant on an isolated exit off I-40 about 10 miles east of Jackson, where I lived. I wondered about it at the time — but now it makes sense. There were no Indian food restaurants in Jackson proper. City streets are too time-consuming to navigate when you’re driving a massive truck and need to move a load across country.

The Economist has reported that Sikhs control 40 percent of all trucking in California and 60 percent of all trucking in Canada. It’s a natural fit for people who are discriminated against because they wear turbans and whose English isn’t the best.

In a well-researched piece on Pandher gave an interview.

The vast majority of Sikh truckers had limited educational and financial background when they first migrated. How nonetheless have they become significant players in an industry so robustly ingrained in the U.S. economy? Pandher offers an explanation: “When the Sikhs came to the U.S., the American trucker was fast becoming a dwindling breed. Lets’ just say, the Sikhs picked up the trucking industry from where the Americans left it.”

The job still involves late nights and weekend shifts but first and second-generation immigrants have seen it as something that is a growth industry and can pay well if you move up the chain. It was an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them strategy. From Little India:

SikhsPAC’s Khalsa, who completed a marketing certification program at the University of California, started a trucking company with his brother in California in 1997. He says: “Many Sikh truckers felt that they were treated unfairly. Many felt that the highway patrols were biased and more violation tickets were issued to non-whites, including Sikhs. They were also paid less and were subject to mistreatments.”

The acuteness of the discrimination was felt more strongly by the first generation. However, the challenges abound even today, says Jasbir Singh: “Even though I started as a mechanic in late 1990s, even then we knew there were certain biases. In the American company that I worked, all the jobs would go to the whites and they would be better paid than us. We knew that we would get the jobs that were leftovers or the ones no one would take.”

Instead of being discouraged for being shortchanged, several Sikh drivers resolved to overcome the challenges by diversifying into truck brokerages, transportation and shipping companies, serving subcontractors for California farmers.

The trucker magazine Overdrive’s recent cover story — illustrated by a photo of an affable-looking man wearing a turban — told of one redneck trucker who changed his mind about Sikhs after a number of Sikh drivers showed up at trucker protests, in solidarity with other truckers, in Washington, D.C., in October.

Scott Reed and Pennsylvania-headquartered Landis & Sons owner-operator Mike Landis say they walked away from the D.C. protests with a new appreciation for Sikh truckers.

“I grew up with 9/11 happening when I was in high school,” says Landis, who runs his independent business in a 1999 Peterbilt cabover. “I’ve always been pretty closed-minded about anyone who wears a turban or looks remotely anything like the terrorists do. I’ve never really been ashamed to say that.”

Even though he knew Sikhs were peaceful, he said he didn’t care.

“But when they showed up [for the Washington, D.C., protests] and they wanted to shake our hands and thank us for being there, and seeing how many of them showed up, I would say it was four-to-one they outnumbered us ‘proud loud-mouthed Americans,’ ” he jokes.

“Then here you have these people who know a lot of people look down on them just because of how they’re dressing and how they look, and they’re thanking us for being there in our trucks. It was extremely humbling.”…

“Man, I really feel like a piece of crap for feeling and thinking the things I’ve felt over the years,” Landis adds. “I’ll never feel the same way about them again. I’d defend them with everything I’ve got if I had to.”

Even though this was a business/trucking story, it was also a great religion story. There’s a lot more of these stories out there for folks who care to look for them.

Add a Comment