Tantalizing ingredients: The Indian-owned dairy in New Zealand

epProfessor Ed wina Pio, New Zealand’s first professor of diversity, traces the history of the Indian-owned dairy shop in New Zealand and in doing so, explores the migration and work trajectories of early Indian settlers. She was recently featured in a Prime TV documentary on the topic, and her book Sari, released by Sir John Key, focuses on the Indian diaspora in New Zealand.  

Indians, primarily from the Punjab and Gujarat provinces of the then-British Empire, have been working in New Zealand since the late nineteenth century.

Early Indian settlers initially sold fruit and vegetables in baskets on roadside corners, as this did not require much investment. But over the years the basket became a wheelbarrow, then a truck, and when finances permitted, a shop.

Under The Shop and Office Act of 1921-1922, Indians were able to purchase shops and businesses, because while only British subjects could own such establishments, Indians – being part of the British Empire – were, in fact, British subjects.

In the early days, Indians had difficulty in securing employment due to hostility from some Europeans. In a job, an immigrant would be dependent on

others and fairly vulnerable to organised pressure, for example the public’s perception of a ‘Hindoo peril’. 

Restrictions were also imposed on Indians such as refusing them entry into private bars and hotels, balcony seats in cinemas, and even where and who cut their hair.

Indian dairySource: The Changing Face of the New Zealand Dairy, Prime TV

Some Indian men combined their fruit and vegetable business with work in the carrier business where they would collect rags, bottles, wooden boxes and sacks. They worked long hours and found that setting up a dairy was more fulfilling than working in a job full of discrimination, with few chances for career progression.

Skeins of ethnic entrepreneurship and patriarchy are unravelled as the diversity in experiences and qualifications of many of the men and women in dairies epitomizes the need to move beyond stereotypes.

Examples of these stereotypes include an image of an Indian dairy woman unable to speak English, smelling of curry and living as the subservient chattel of her all-powerful Indian husband and in-laws.

The persistence of this image continues, despite professional migrant Indian women entering the workforce as educators, lawyers, journalists and doctors. Recent migrants long to belong but sometimes find their mobility blocked in the labour market due to language or other factors.

Thus they find that setting up a dairy is more fulfilling than working in a dead-end job on the lower rungs of the occupational hierarchy, particularly if they held white-collar jobs in their source country.

In particular, the Indian women and their children who worked in family dairies serve as a reminder of continuity and evolution as they endeavour to create new images of themselves, based on changes in New Zealand’s demography and economy.

Some of the women who work in family-owned dairies also work in other occupations such as nurses, teachers, lab technicians, scientists, as they continue to uphold values of Indian ethnic entrepreneurship.

Prof Edwina Pio 20 Jan 2022Professor Edwina Pio

Many of the women who now co-own dairies remember helping their families before and after school and on weekends, in washing, cleaning and packing vegetables and fruits.

While the need for dairies is undergoing a metamorphosis, based on the ubiquitous presence of mega supermarkets, and violent break-ins for expensive cigarettes, they are an enduring and often sentimental community image in the minds and hearts of many New Zealanders.

Outsiders take a journey, seeking to become insiders and bartering their future on a dream that sometimes nobody sees.  It is pertinent to note that we must all work towards breaking glass, concrete and bamboo ceilings. For in the deepening hues of the fabric of living in New Zealand, we are all threads of the same skein of life.

– Asia Media Centre


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