An all-American industry changes the all-American way

SURJIT KHAN’S “Truck Union” is part of a new crop of trucker songs hitting America’s highways. Like the 1970s classics, Mr Khan’s ditty is all blue jeans, work boots and American-dream fulfilment. Unlike those classics, though, the music video features turbaned dancers in flashy kurtas belting out Punjabi lyrics while gyrating to bhangra beats, before a stage-set of lorries.

Mr Khan’s is one of a growing chorus of Indian trucking songs, the soundtrack to a shift in the freight industry. Gurinder Singh Khalsa, the chairman of Sikhs PAC, a Sikh political organisation, says there are approximately 150,000 Sikhs in trucking, 90% of whom are drivers. Those numbers are growing rapidly, with 18,000 Sikhs entering the industry in 2017 alone. The North American Punjabi Trucking Association (NAPTA) estimates that Sikhs control about 40% of trucking in California (Sikhism is closely associated with Punjab, a region that straddles India and Pakistan).

This is an extension of a trend that began farther north; Sikhs already play an outsize part in Canadian trucking. NAPTA, which is based in California but seeks to represent Sikh truckers in both America and Canada, was formed this year. Last October, Sikhs PAC joined other organisations to protest against new trucking regulations. This is not the only way Sikh truckers are making their presence felt. A network of Indian truck stops is spreading along the main routes, serving some fine daal and naan bread.

Before deregulation in the 1980s, trucking was a blue-collar route to the middle class. Since then, pay has stagnated, and the job has lost much of its appeal. The Bureau of Labour Statistics reports median earnings of $42,000, or about $20 an hour, a sum that may dwindle after expenses. Annual turnover rates within firms hover around 90%. The American Trucking Associations warned of a shortage of 50,000 drivers by the end of 2017, rising to 174,000 by 2026. The median age of the private-fleet driver is 52; many younger would-be drivers refuse to take on a job with a gruelling, erratic schedule and long stretches away from home.

Yet, though most Americans may not think highly of trucking, Sikhs regard it as a prestigious career. Many Sikh drivers come from trucking families in India, where Sikhs are also prominent in the industry. In February, for the first time, Overdrive magazine, the self-described “Voice of The American Trucker”, featured a Sikh driver on its cover.

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