“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 finger-tips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager,” retaliated 44-year-old Jayaben Desai.
She made this bold statement when her manager compared her and her colleagues to ‘chattering monkeys’.
For the workers at the Grunwick film processing factory in North London in the 1970s, working conditions were harsh.
Predominantly comprised of South Asian women, including a sizeable percentage of Indian immigrants, workers had to toil extra hours at less wages and the authorities would subject them to regular overtime duties, mostly unpaid.
Women would have to seek permission for using the restroom. One single word of protest would often result in immediate termination. The gross violation of worker’s rights at Grunwick reached its pinnacle, often compromising basic human rights.
The exploitation continued till one woman dared to raise her voice.
On 20 August 1976, Jayaben, a woman of Gujarati origin and a worker at Grunwick, was ordered to do unpaid overtime, for perhaps the umpteenth time in her tenure. But by then, she had had enough.
The mother of three refused to abide by the irrational instructions. She surrendered her employee card and walked out with her son Sunil who also worked at the same factory.
Strikers in a Sari
Born and brought up in Gujarat, India, Jayaben Desai migrated to Africa following her marriage to Suryakant Desai, a manager at a tyre-factory in Tanzania. Later, in 1969, she moved to Britain trusting the widespread belief that Britain had lots of decent jobs for Asian and African women.
Only upon joining these British factories that Jayaben and her coworkers realised the grim truth – these establishments were recruiting women from developing countries merely as cheap labour.
After Jayaben staged a walkout on 20 August, she was joined by more and more women who were rapidly quitting. Jayaben, her son Sunil and four other women started picketing the front gates of the Grunwick factory, persuading the workers inside to come and join. Soon, there were 137 workers outside the factory protesting for better wages and working conditions.
The existent trade unions in Britain were not known for lending their support to black or brown workers before. But now Jayaben Desai advocated the formation of a factory union to present their grievances in a more organised manner. She and her supporters joined a trade union but the stubborn factory management refused to acknowledge their union membership.
The movement solidified when other local trade unions started joining hands with the Grunwick protesters – identified as the ‘Strikers in Saris’.
Their war cry – “The Workers United, Will Never Be Defeated” – resonated all over the London sky.
During a protest, a BBC journalist asked Jayaben how long would she stay here (at the front of the factory). Her curt reply was “Until we finish this dispute.” She went on to add that she could wait even a decade.
The reporter, startled by her stern determination, wanted to reaffirm. “You’d stay?” he asked. “We will stay,” she corrected him.
The Spread of the Movement
Word spread and so did the movement beyond Grunwick, becoming the voice of all overworked and underpaid women workers as well as the Asian & African workforce. They voiced their outrage against exploitation, poor working conditions, pay disparity and institutionalised racism.
Jayaben became the face of the movement and led thousands of strikers from steel mills, car factories, engineering and aircraft factories. In fact, within almost three months, the delegation of strikers led by Jayaben successfully motivated workers across 2,000 factories to join their cause.
By July 1977, the factory premises across Britain were thronging with over 20,000 protesters.
In the November of the same year, after a brutal episode of police violence on 2,000 protesters that left many injured, Jayaben and three other male leaders sat on a hunger strike. But the protest movement lost its soul due to the intervention of the high-ranking politicians and the police force.
Many participating trade unions withdrew their support in fear. The dynamic movement that once stirred the whole of Britain finally ended in a defeat for the workers in 1978.
However, though some of the larger demands of the movement remained unfulfilled, the localised impact of the movement cannot be overlooked. For example, the Grunwick factory was relocated to a better area and workers were now provided several perks including daily transport. The retired employees finally enjoyed pension benefits.
Jayaben Desai went on to become an icon of South Asian women in Britain. But, the prolonged strike took a toll on her health, forcing her to retire soon after. Jayaben passed away on 23 December 2010 at her London home, survived by husband and three sons.
Picture Courtsey: Instagram/Brown History
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)