Sikh Truckers in America
The new generation is changing the demographics of Sikh truckers in America.
It’s way past midnight on a cool summer night in Denver, Colorado. With most residents in deep slumber, the city seems to be cloaked in an eerie silence. But Mintu Pandher is preparing for his long journey through the night. Pandher will be driving his sparkling blue Peterbilt 389 truck to haul fuel from Denver to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Starting at 2 am, Pandher hopes to cover the 520-mile stretch in about 9 hours with recommended breaks to reach Lincoln before noon. The long journey through the night doesn’t bother Pandher who is used to such hauls. What does bother him though is the nights and weekends that his work takes him away from his family and little children.
“As truckers, we do miss quite a bit on their (kids) growing up. And that hurts more than the hard work. But that’s the price you pay to be a trucker,” says Pandher, wistfully.
Pandher, who started as a truck driver, running an intrastate hazmat in 2003, today owns the Laramie, Wyoming, based Akal Travel Center, which has 9 trucks, 13 tanker trailers and 4 truck stops in Wyoming, Nebraska and New Mexico. Pandher is among the thousands of Sikhs in the American trucking industry.
Nearly 71% of the freight tonnage on land moves on trucks. The American trucking industry forms the lifeline of the U.S. economy. According to the 2012 Survey of Business Owners by the U.S. Census Bureau, there were nearly 600,000 trucking companies with $300 billion in sales. The American Trucking Association estimates that 3.5 million truckers move 10.55 billion tons of freight annually.
Gurinder Singh Khalsa of the Indianapolis based Sikhs Political Action Committee estimates that 150,000 Sikhs are currently engaged in the trucking sector. He says, “In 2017, alone about 18,000 Sikh truckers were added to the industry.”
While nearly 90 percent are drivers, growing numbers are building their own trucking and allied businesses. The 2012 Census Bureau survey reported 12,136 Asian Indian trucking businesses with $2.3 billion in sales. Indians dominate among Asians, controlling almost half of all Asian trucking businesses in the country.
SikhsPAC estimates that Sikhs own a truck stop along every eight-hour run on all U.S. interstates from east to west coast. These truck plazas incorporate everything from repair shops, roadside assistance, food and restroom facilities and operate 24-hours. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Indians own one in four gasoline stations with convenience stores, with $37 billion in sales in 2012.
Indians account for 10 percent of California’s trucking businesses and nearly a third of gas stations with convenience stores, according to Census Bureau data. The North American Punjabi Trucking Association estimates that Sikhs today control 40 percent of trucking and allied industries in California. SikhsPAC’s Khalsa claims that while Sikhs entered the trucking businesses originally in California and New York, since 2005 Indiana has attracted trucking companies as this “crossroads of America,” is home to major distribution centers for both coasts and several Sikh transportation companies have moved in. The 2012 Business Survey reported 510 Indian trucking businesses in Indiana with $119 million in sales and 483 Indian gas stations with convenience stores.
While Indians are among the most financially successful ethnic groups in the United States, in large part that success is predicated on the strong educational and professional background of the community. By contrast, 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.”
Breaking into the transportation sector is far easier for the new arrivals than it was for those who first penetrated the sector in the 1980s and early 1990s. A combination of social, financial, religious, and political factors contributed to the growth of Sikhs in America’s trucking sector. Sikh Americans began entering the trucking industry toward the late 1980s and early 1990s. Khalsa says: “Many of the Sikhs from Punjab migrated to the US, Canada, UK, New Zealand and other English-speaking countries during the 1980s to escape the political turmoil in the state.” After the 1984 anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, large numbers migrated to North America. Many Sikhs in California found trucking a viable option as they had agricultural or transportation background.
Several Sikhs opted for truck driving jobs because with their visible religious markers — turbans and beards — they faced discrimination and often found it difficult to land regular jobs in supermarkets or offices. Truck driving served them well as they were on the road mostly independently and did not report to a workplace where they felt alienated because of their “different” appearance.
San Jose, Calif., based Balwinder Khalsa, came to the United States in 1982. She says: “I went back to India and got married. In 1989, when I returned to the US with my husband, it was hard for him to find a job even with a PhD degree, because he was a Amritdhari (a Sikh who abides by the five rules of his religion in appearance).” The couple decided to launch an insurance business. Many others turned to transportation.
Pandher, says: “Many Sikhs had a reservation about doing jobs that involved selling alcohol or tobacco. Also, it paid well and could earn you $100,000 annually if you work hard.”
With their enterprising background, soon enough many Sikhs branched out into owning and operating trucks. Pandher says, “We realized that you don’t really need a capital of $100 million to start with in trucking.”
Citing his own example, he recalls: “I started as a driver in Colorado and worked for 8 months before I bought my first truck. We were lucky that when I started between 2008-2013, there was an oil boom in Colorado area. There was a lot of drilling up north and there was a great demand for hauling fuel. The pay was good and roads were bad. Many local Americans did not want to take up the jobs that involved late nights and weekend shifts. The Sikhs happily lapped up these and many such positions.”
The earliest arrivals in the industry were focused on survival. With minimal educational background, most of them could only find minimum wage jobs. Trucking seemed tough, but paid far better. Sacramento, California based Jasbir Singh, who runs the Imperial Trucking Company, which own truck washes and truck repair shops in California, Indiana and Arizona, started as a mechanic in California after he first arrived from Jalandhar, Punjab, as a young man. He says: “A lot of us who came to the US had already invested money for our travel. Often the money was borrowed on interest and would double in three years. The overriding thought that many had was to work hard enough to repay the money as swiftly as possible.” The hard-working Sikhs began working long hours and soon the contractors realized that they were trustworthy and reliable.
The new Sikh arrivals in America faced many barriers, especially language. Often unable to communicate effectively with their American employers or contractors, the Sikhs felt pangs of bias. 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 diversifing into truck brokerages, transportation and shipping companies, serving subcontractors for California farmers.
Two even started a media company catering to Sikh truckers. Punjabi Radio USA was launched in 2010 by California based Sikh couple Harjot Singh and Balwinder Singh Khalsa. Raj Karan Bir Singh, who handles the management of the radio station, says: “The medium was meant to give a voice to the Punjabi community. We began in 2010, around the time when the Sikhs in trucking industry were also evolving.
Balwinder Singh says: “We are a 24-hour Punjabi station, but we have special shows for the truckers. A large number of our listeners are truckers who rely on us for all their regulation related news. We also do a news podcast that the truckers can listen to if they have missed a segment.”
Jasbir Singh who also owns truck stops serving Indian food in Indiana, says since Sikh truckers often craved Indian food during their journeys, restaurant emerged to meet demand. The Indian truck stops cater not just to Sikhs, but also truckers of other ethnicities, who are attracted to the spicy and low priced food. Several Sikh owned truck stops have made arrangements for a place to offer namaz and halal food to cater to Somalian and Muslim drivers.
The new generation is changing the demographics of Sikh truckers in America. Many of them, unlike their parents, are university educated, speak flawless English and are better equipped to handle the legalities and demands of the trade. Many truckers are educating their children to become doctors or engineers, and for the most part the next generation is discouraged from getting into trucking.
Nevertheless, a few have chanced upon it. Fresno, Calif., based Binda Atwal turned to owning and operating a Kenworth T680 after a drunken driving charge precluded him from pursuing his law degree at San Joaquin College of Law, where he was then studying. Born and brought up in the United States, Atwal, whose extended family has long been into trucking, represents the new face of the Sikh American trucking community.
Highly hopeful of the way things are shaping up for Sikh Americans in trucking, Atwal says: “The days of post 9/11 ignorance are behind us. Today, at least in the trucking industry, everyone knows who Sikhs are. With the coming of educated Sikh Americans in the trade, whose language and mannerisms may be the same as a white guy, there is a lot of synergy and exchange between the truckers today.”
The dynamics for Sikh truckers was particularly impacted by protests against electronic logging devices in Washington, D.C. in October last year. “When a large number of Sikhs joined the protests along with American owners and operators, it turned out to be a moment of reckoning for many locals that the Sikhs share the same concerns as their white counterparts,” says, Atwal, who prominently delivered speeches at public events.
Mike Landis, owner-operator of Landis & Sons in Pennsylvania, who long had harbored suspicion of “anyone who wears a turban” was among those swayed. Landis told the trucker magazine Overdrive: “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. I’ll never feel the same way about them again. I’d defend them with everything I’ve got if I had to.”
The new Sikh American truckers say the demarcations that set them apart may be fading as they become increasingly ingrained in the American landscape. Consider Mintu Pandher’s fleet of Peterbilts — all colored blue and orange in solidarity with the Denver Broncos team colors and his staff of all-White drivers. The times, to borrow from Bob Dylan, they are a changin’.