Popular culture

One in five Canadian truck drivers is South Asian. Their needs were ignored.

On January 29, hundreds of truckers from across Canada came to Ottawa to protest the government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, despite the fact that almost 90% of truckers in Canada are already vaccinated. Protests have spread to blockades on busy roads between the United States and Canada, disrupting automakers’ supply chains.

Although they represent at least 20% of the Canadian trucking community, South Asian truckers are rare at the “Freedom Convoy” in the capital. If the protesters’ demands are inclusive and urgent for all truckers, why haven’t South Asians stepped up?

When I spoke to Armaghan Afghan, a 34-year-old Pakistani-Canadian truck driver this week, he was halfway through his 5.5-hour trip from Toronto to Ottawa. But Afghan was not traveling to Ottawa to join the protest. “Why would I, or the majority of the trucking industry, join the protesters when we disagree with their demands? The rally is for anti-vaxxers and right-wingers,” he said. “And the vast majority of truckers are vaccinated.”

Data from the Canadian Trucking Alliance supports Afghan’s claim, showing that truckers and their families were vaccinated early on, as were others I’ve spoken to in the industry. Disha Singh, who works as a safety manager at a trucking and logistics company in Ontario, told me the majority of Sunrise Freight Systems workers are South Asian and vaccinated. “Our drivers and workers just don’t care about the request not to be vaccinated. The only conversation we have about the rally is that it caused delays and it was difficult for the drivers,” she said. Drivers don’t earn money for the hours they’re stuck in traffic.

Trucks line up on Highway 402 to enter the United States at the Bluewater Bridge in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada on February 10. The bridge was forced to take almost all truck traffic between Ontario and Michigan after protesters blocked the ambassador. Bridge at Windsor.GEOFF ROBINS/AFP via Getty Images

The valid and pressing issues of the Canadian trucking industry are largely lost in the protests, many of which are valid for American truckers as well. According to Trucking HR Canada, the country faces a shortage of 20,000 drivers. Less than 3% of the industry is made up of women. Millennials are not interested in joining the trucking industry. Last December, the industry came together under the auspices of the Canadian Trucking Alliance to plan a social media campaign to attract a young and diverse set of workers. Millions of dollars have been invested; now it seems that much of that effort has been wasted.

“I would like us to talk about congested highways, road safety, lack of parking spaces, small number of border agents and lack of restrooms for truckers,” said Manan Gupta, director of Road Canada, a magazine devoted to the South. Asian trucking community. “I wish we had talked about how we can pay truckers better, on time, and attract millennials into our industry.” Gupta lamented that instead of talking about how most highways in the North are single-lane roads, or focusing on immigration reforms for South Asian truckers, or discussing vulnerable immigrants who are trapped in extremely abusive working conditions, protesters in Ottawa are focused on vaccinations, a non-issue in his view.

Afghan brought up a point that, as a South Asian immigrant to North America, I often think about. He asked, “How can an immigrant be part of a movement? Immigrants like to keep a low profile; they only do what they have to for a living. I see where he comes from, playing the role of the model minority is what people expect from South Asians.

But the recent history of South Asian truckers tells a different story. Since increasing numbers of South Asians have found themselves in the industry, they have repeatedly protested for their rights. Their most common concern is late or non-payment of wages – a problem that seems endemic among immigrant drivers, who are likely to sign dodgy employment contracts and have less access to justice.

Moreover, in 2021, when farmers in the Indian province of Punjab demanded the abolition of three bills that would lead them to starvation, the Indian diaspora in Canada spoke out loud and clear in their favor. Trucks in Canada are still decorated with stickers that read “No Farmers, No Food” and “Farmers Feed Families”.

The Freedom Convoy continues to grow and the demands have evolved: now some protesters are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; there are vague rallying cries for “truth and freedom”; American right-wing extremists have joined them; and the protests are described as the January 6 moment in Canada. American truckers are making videos in support of the rally, and a “people’s convoy” from California to Washington, DC, is planned for next month.

It’s a time for truckers across North America; they have the microphone. But the decline of large parts of the industry such as South Asians is ominous and telling: if the protest is not inclusive, if it is not focused on making life easier for truckers and, subsequently, on mitigating the cracks in global supply chain, the rally will fizzle out and truckers will be back on the road without having achieved anything.

Maham Javaid is a 2022 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at the International Women’s Media Foundation and a researcher at the Center for International Studies at MIT.