Paramjit Singh Sandhu, a 45-year-old truck driver, drove up to a medical facility in Sachse, Texas in December 2020 for what should have been a routine drug test.
A resident of Texas, Sandhu has worked in the trucking industry for more than two decades. Under federal law, truck drivers are mandated to undergo a drug test. But this time, when Sandhu arrived at a MedPost Urgent Care facility, a nurse refused to administer one unless he removed his “hat” – referring to his dastaar, or turban.
Sandhu told Scroll.in he had taken a drug test just six months before this incident and another test at the very same facility in mid-2019, and did not have to remove his turban.
He tried explaining to the nurse that wearing his turban at all times is an article of his faith, but she insisted that removing his headgear was mandated under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations. According to these rules, drivers are requested to “check their belongings and remove any unnecessary outer garments, including purses, briefcases, and bulky outerwear.”
Even after speaking to a supervisor, the healthcare centre did not accommodate him.
The sizable Sikh trucking population in the US routinely faces religious violations during drug testing. According to experts and truck drivers, by not completing drug tests, drivers could lose their licenses and risk their careers. However, a number of them are now taking legal action.
“Even though religious freedom regulations exist, Sikhs continue to be disproportionately targeted because they wear turbans and an appearance in accordance with their faith,” said Aasees Kaur, the legal client and community services manager of the Sikh Coalition, who took the lead on on Sandhu’s case. “People should know religious exemptions can be made, and legal help is available,” Kaur said.
While the first wave of Indian Sikhs moved to the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s – the first American gurudwara was founded in 1912 in Stockton, California – from the 1980s and 1990s onwards, there was a significant spike in migration.
Some of this was provoked by the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the troubles that followed in Punjab. A significant section of this immigrant population went into trucking, with Sikh drivers described as “transforming” the industry in the US.
“Trucking is in our blood,” said Ramanpreet Singh, who is Chief Financial Officer and on the board of directors at the North American Punjabi Trucking Association, and runs his own trucking company, Jumbo Logistics. “In India, we are known for being farmers, but in Africa, Europe, America, Canada – almost everywhere you go – trucking is something we like to do.”
It is estimated that there are between 150,000 and 200,000 Sikhs in the trucking business, out of the roughly 500,000 Sikhs who live in the US. Sikhs make up around 18% of the drivers in the industry, and in California, they make up 40%, according to experts that spoke to Scroll.in.
That prominence, however, has also made the community more visible to the wider American public – and as a result, vulnerable to discrimination. Factors such as wearing a turban, skin colour, clothing, and, most importantly, language, play a big role.
“If you look different, and also have a language bar and are not understanding someone, they may deal with you very differently,” said Singh.
Raman Singh Dhillon, CEO of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association, and president of Punjabi Trucking Magazine – a North American bilingual magazine published in English and Punjabi six times a year – said his association hopes to track and address this problem.
“We keep on monitoring cases of discrimination, but there’s a lack of reporting from our community. There’s also a language problem that deters people from reporting such cases. We’ve been working on this, trying to bring about awareness.”
A history of hate
The Sikh community in America has a long history of facing racism, discrimination, and hate crimes.
As far back as 1907, a large number of Sikhs in Bellingham, Washington, then labelled as Hindus by the American media, was violently attacked by a unit of the Asiatic Exclusion League, an anti-immigration hate group. Sikhs employed in lumber mills were attacked by a mob of 500 white men, and within hours the entire community fled the city, frantically piling onto trains and boats.
More recently, after the September 11, 2001 attacks, there was a significant rise in hate crimes against Sikhs, particularly incidents of hate speech likening them to “Osama”.
The Sikh Coalition, which was formed in the wake of 9/11 to respond to anti-Sikh violence in the US, gets more than 200 requests for help every year, related to employment discrimination, hate crimes, and school bullying.
Drug testing has been an enduring issue that the Sikh Coalition tackles, said Kaur of the Sikh Coalition. “All of this matters because even though federal law prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace, sometimes people ignore or intentionally violate these rules,” she said.
Kaur explained that between 2008 and 2013, the coalition fought cases for four Sikh truck drivers who were discriminated against by JB Hunt, one of the US’s biggest trucking companies.
As part of the hiring process, the company had asked three of them to cut their hair for drug testing. This is viewed as a humiliating violation of the Sikh practice of growing hair naturally, which, among other things, is upheld as a sign of respect for God’s creation.
The fourth, like Sandhu, was asked to remove his turban while providing a urine sample. This is despite the fact that alternative forms of drug testing were available, including nail sampling, Kaur said.
In all four cases, the drivers refused to violate their religious beliefs and, despite being qualified, were denied employment. After the intervention of the Sikh Coalition, JB Hunt agreed to comply with anti-discrimination laws and settle the case.
“You should know the options rather than being backed into a corner where you have to decide between practicing your faith and having a job,” Kaur said. “It takes courage to speak out, but the outcome sets a positive precedent,” she added.
Drug testing is a common legal issue for truckers, but on the question of hair testing in general, the key part is that employers can waive the hair testing requirements, or request an alternative sample, Kaur said. “We hope that people know help exists, and we provide these professional services completely free of cost, and that they would turn to us.”
In 2015, the Walt Disney Corporation relegated a Sikh person to delivering mail in their corporate offices on a single route, which concealed him from areas where Disney guests congregate – because his appearance did not match the organisation’s ‘look policy.’ Gurdit Singh’s colleagues, on the other hand, were allowed to rotate their routes every three weeks and deliver mail in full view of Disney’s customers.
Gurdit was held back from advancing in his career and even faced animosity from his co-workers during his seven-year stint at the company. Eventually, Disney agreed to desegregate Singh and allow him to rotate his delivery route after the Sikh Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union intervened.
Freedom of religion
In its letter to the healthcare facility that Sandhu visited in December, the Sikh Coalition said that the turban was a mandatory article of the Sikh faith. “Forced removal of the turban is perceived as one of the most humiliating and hurtful physical injuries that can be inflicted upon a Sikh and amounts to a denial of the freedom of religion,” it said.
“The turban is a mandatory article of the Sikh faith. Sikh turbans are not merely headwear, but rather carry significant religious meaning. Unlike a hat, a turban must always cover an observant Sikh’s head. It reminds a Sikh of his or her duty to maintain and uphold the core beliefs of the Sikh faith, which include working hard and honestly, sharing with the needy, and promoting the equality of all humankind. When a Sikh ties a turban, the turban ceases to be just a piece of cloth and becomes one and the same with the individual’s body.
In the 18th century, Sikhs in South Asia were persecuted and forced to convert from their religion; the method of forcing conversions was removing a Sikh’s turban and cutting off his hair. Since then, forcibly removing a Sikh’s turban and cutting his hair has symbolised denying that person the right to belong to the Sikh faith. As a result, forced removal of the turban is perceived as one of the most humiliating and hurtful physical injuries that can be inflicted upon a Sikh and amounts to a denial of the freedom of religion.”— 'Drug Testing Religious Accommodation Required for Paramjit Singh Sandhu', a letter from the Sikh Coalition to CareSpot Family Brands
After the letter was sent, the MedPost supervisor called Sandhu and asked him to return for the test. He finished his drug test with a religious accommodation in January 2021.
Kaur said that fighting cases like Sandhu’s would ensure that other Sikhs walking through the doors of a MedPost facility would be accommodated and not face such violations. She added: “There’s never been a drug test that he didn’t pass. [Paramjit] just felt in his own heart that if he had agreed to remove his turban, it could set a bad precedent for any other Sikh that would have walked in the door.”