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Forgotten Femme Fatale

There is a mural of a saree-clad Indian woman on a wall in north-west London’s Dollis Hill area. Previously, the wall belonged to the Grunwick Factory. This Indian lady shook entire Britain in the late 1970s, as an historic event took place in the summer of 1976.
Most of the employees of the factory’s Photo Processing Department were women, mainly from India and Pakistan. They had to work under the strict surveillance of some racist British officers! The officers used to harass the workers unnecessarily. Even, the female workers had to seek permission from their male managers before going to the washroom! Moreover, they weren’t paid well. In such a situation, the employees were asked to work overtime on August 20. The employees had to follow the order as it was not illegal for employers in contemporary Britain to require their employees to work overtime.

Grunwick Strike mural

However, a non-resident woman from India’s Gujarat Province opposed the order. Jayaben Desai – the mother of two – decided to stage protests against the order inside the factory premises. Her son Sunil was also with her, as both of them worked there. Within an hour, hundreds of employees joined the protest. It was the beginning of a two-year strike between 1976 and 1978, the longest strike in England in the 1970s.
But why the authorities put their employees under tremendous pressure?
The Britons used to enjoy summer vacation in August. After enjoying the vacation, they rushed to studios for developing the images of their trips to different places. The Grunwick employees had to work under pressure during this period in order to meet the demand. However, the Grunwick management’s decision created troubles especially for female employees who had to look after their families and to prepare foods after coming back from the factory. Work pressure, poor remuneration and ill treatment at the workplace made the situation worse for them!

Jayaben Desai

Jayaben was born in Gujarat on April 2, 1933. After getting married to Suryakanta Desai, she travelled to Tanzania, Africa in 1956. In the 1960s, Indians and Pakistanis used to travel to the African countries – like Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda – in search of jobs. Suryakanta was one of them who arrived in Dodoma to get a job. He was in trouble in 1961-62 when the African nation became an independent republic. The Indian national lost his job because of the Tanzanian government’s ‘Africanisation’ policies that encouraged public and private companies to recruit local people. The situation prompted Asian workers to migrate to Britain. The Desai family, too, moved to London.
It became difficult for Asian women, migrated to Britain from Africa, to get suitable jobs because of the economic situation in contemporary Britain. They managed to get only low-paid jobs in post-war England. They also became the victims of racism! The Asian immigrants had no other option, but to accept the reality.

Site of Grunwick strike

Jayaben got a job at the Grunwick Factory which was recruiting hard-working female workers for its Photo Processing Department at that time. Although the recruiters offered the job to the 4ft 8in Indian lady, they had no idea about Jayaben’s personality. Later, her strong personality helped the migrant lady become the prominent leader of the strikers who protested about working conditions, pay inequality and institutionalised racism within the company. In a rare first, the Britons saw saree-clad Indian women were staging protests in London and confronting the police. A middle class Indian housewife’s emergence as a leader of a trade union movement in Britain triggered a sensation in the European nation in the 1970s. It can be remembered during the era of Brexit that Desai was the first Asian leader to lead a movement in England.
Unfortunately, the Grunwick management failed to realise the importance of the strike. When the management compared the strikers to monkeys, Jayaben said: “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager.” She also said: “Trade Union support is like honey on the elbow – you can smell it, you can feel it, but you cannot taste it.

Even the British workers found a lion in Jayaben! According to sources close to the British Museum, around 20,000 workers joined the movement. Once, Jayaben’s son Sunil described the period as “a hot summer with hot temper”. Jayaben announced that she would call off the strike only if the management behaved properly with the employees. “Grunwick recruited us because they needed the workforce,” she stressed.
England had a number of trade unions in the 1960s, but those used to safeguard the interests of white workers. The British trade unions were not at all worried about the condition of the Asian and African workers. Jayaben and her followers realised that they would have to fight for their own right. That’s why they joined the APECS (Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff). However, the Grunwick management refused to recognise them! Moreover, the management sacked 137 workers for taking part in protests.

Desai in August 1977 outside the Grunwick factory where she led a walkout and long-running strike. Photograph: Graham Wood/Getty Images

The scenario changed within a month, as workers from other factories joined the movement led by Jayaben. At least 20,000 strikers gathered near the Dollis Hill Green Tube station in June 1977. Surprisingly, Labour Minister Shirley Williams and stalwart MPs Dennis Howell and Fred Mulley joined the protests and backed Jayaben’s agitation against the Grunwick management. The labour union of the Grunwick factory recorded the names and personal information of strikers. As per the record, even mine workers joined the protests. Leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) Arthur Scargill held a meeting with Jayaben, as they prepared a strategy to fight against the Grunwick management. British MP Jack Dromey assured the Indian lady that the younger generation would remember her contribution to ensuring workers’ rights in Britain.

Jayaben’s war against the management was not only limited in picketing, slogans and posters. She was tortured by the police. The British government used force to stop 8,000 strikers from staging protests in London in November 1977. At least 243 strikers received serious injuries and 12 of them were brutally tortured. Jayaben and her supporters gathered in front of the Trade Union Congress Headquarters to protest against the police brutality in late November, ignoring the cold. The then British Home Secretary Merlyn Rees not only deployed police, but also tried to appease the protesters in order to normalise the situation. However, he failed to convince the Grunwick workers who continued to stage protests.

The policing of the Grunwick strike

Despite all these, this movement failed to taste success! The diminutive Indian immigrant – who mobilised 20,000 workers – said that they managed to change the work culture in Britain. Later, the Grunwick management introduced ‘pick up and drop’ facility for the workers, although the sacked employees (like Jayaben) didn’t enjoy this facility. Jayaben didn’t get what she wanted, but the Grunwick strike united thousands of workers, irrespective of their race, colour and gender. Since 1978, this strike has achieved almost mythic status in British labour history when the trade unions supported the demands of minority women workers. The history still remembers the fight of a migrant lady for her rights!
Jayaben passed away on December 23, 2010, aged 77. After clearing the driving test at the age of 60, she said: “I feel like a free bird.” Jayaben was one of seven women chosen by BBC Radio Four’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ for their 2016 Power List on December 14, 2016. The list was topped by former British Premier Margaret Thatcher and also included Helen Brook, Barbara Castle, Germaine Greer, Bridget Jones and Beyoncé.
The Indian lady – who once told her Grunwick managers that “a person like me, I am never scared of anybody” – remained defiant till the end.

There was another lady – Savitribai Jyotirao Phule – who was an Indian social reformer, educationalist and poet. She is regarded as the first lady teacher of the South Asian country. Along with her husband, Jyotirao Phule, Savitribai played an important role in improving women’s rights in India during British rule.

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