Sowing the seeds for diversity in farming

by Nadeem Badshah

A VET who suffered racial discrimination throughout his career is leading the fight to make
farming more diverse so his children and future generations are welcomed into the profession.

Navaratnam Partheeban, 36, has spoken out about the discrimination he has experienced, including one time when a farmer refused the vet onto his land.

Partheeban hopes to sow the seeds for change and plans to speak to the National Farmers Union, Labour MP Tom Watson and other ethnic minorities in the industry to grow a support network.

Just one per cent of UK vets are south Asian origin, while ethnic minorities make up three per cent of people in veterinary schools.

In an interview with Eastern Eye, the dad-of-two from Gloucestershire believes the veterinary and farming industries are 20-30 years behind in accepting ethnic minority professionals.

Partheeban, who was born in Britain and is of Sri Lankan origin, added: “It’s the perception that I am foreign, different. Little jokes about skin colour and not pronouncing your name properly, referred to as a ‘coloured vet’.

“That’s not right, people not accepting you straight away.

“I’ve had prejudice both when I was learning and my career as a vet. I had to apply for three times more jobs to get my first one compared to my peers.

“People would judge me based on my name on my CV.”

Partheeban, who has been in the industry for around 16 years, added he has been referred to as being “black” by people and often has to correct them.

He said: “Because I am in a minority it’s difficult to correct, sometimes you let something
slide – that’s giving acceptance to those people to carry on doing it, and makes it difficult to change behaviour.

“You start to feel isolated. A couple of times I have tried to seek help and haven’t got it.

“When you are young as a vet you have to let things slide, you want to have a job and get on with clients and don’t say anything.

“I am experienced and old enough, and have worked with enough people to bring this issue
to prominence to support and help other vets who maybe are facing it. I am trying to educate.”

The vet, who is also a senior livestock production lecturer at the Royal Agricultural University in Gloucestershire, wrote a column in Farmers Weekly magazine calling for more tolerance in the agricultural industry.

While he received several messages of support, he was also sent a vile anonymous letter in
December from Yorkshire, which read: “This country is full of you moronic b*****ds. If you don’t like it, go back to your parents’ world. You may think you are British, but there
never has been a black English man and there never will be.

“If a dog is born in a stable, it does not become a horse. Your [sic] black, get over it.”

Police are investigating the letter.

Partheeban said he was not shocked by the “contents of the letter” but the effort made to write it.

“For someone to write a letter, google my address and send it me was more shocking than the message itself,” he added. “Someone took the effort to do that. That person was a Farmers Weekly reader and it was sent from someone in Yorkshire who doesn’t
know me personally.”

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and British Veterinary Association are both trying to increase awareness of diversity among members.

Partheeban added the “subconscious bias” which is holding back ethnic minorities in the industry needs to be weeded out.

He said: “These professions have to be ready to accept them and be welcoming and tolerant of different races. The veterinary community is 20 years behind, but changes are
being made.

“With the farming community, (it is) 10 years behind and it’s about starting the conversation now.

“We do have a lot of talented people out there from BME communities – we need to recruit
them especially with Brexit and people leaving the industry.

“Hopefully that will create role models for more people to join.”

He added: “My children enjoy working on farms and animals and I want them to come into it.”

In December, home secretary Sajid Javid unveiled what he said would be the biggest shake-up of immigration policy for 40 years, announcing that tens of thousands
of low-skilled migrants could come to the UK to work for up to a year under proposed post-
Brexit rules.

The measure, which would last until 2025, is intended to protect parts of the economy which are reliant on overseas labour such as agriculture. Partheeban said the proposal is
another reason why the farming sector needs to adapt and embrace diversity.

“People are used to seeing Eastern European white faces doing the milking of cows and picking of fruit, we’re going to get more people from countries like Thailand.

“Some (south Asians in the UK) got in contact with me and I will start to grow the network. Some have similar stories, the language used around them, perceptions around them – no-one has been able to speak out.

“I have nothing to lose. I am in a secure job, am qualified enough and have got enough experience.”