04 Jan

Jayaben Desai, leader of the Grunwick dispute, dies aged 77

The trade unionist’s ‘strikers in saris’ achieved recognition for the rights of Asian female workers

By Paul Lewis


Jayaben Desai: “What you are running 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 those lions, Mr Manager.”

Jayaben Desai, the Asian trade unionist whose bold leadership of the Grunwick dispute in the late 1970s produced a landmark in industrial relations, has died aged 77.

Desai led a walkout of the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in the summer of 1976 in an attempt to convince managers to recognise a unionised workforce.

One of the disputes that triggered the walkout involved a 19-year-old male employee, but Grunwick became known for the way in which predominantly Asian and female workers stood up to their employers. The dispute by the women – who became known in the press as “strikers in saris” – lasted more than two years, and Desai’s defiant campaign gained national recognition.

After storming out of the processing plants in north London, Desai and her co-workers joined the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff (Apex). However they were joined on picket lines by workers from across the labour movement, who coalesced around the Grunwick dispute in solidarity.

As momentum built, there were frequent confrontations between hundreds of trade unionists and police.

Desai’s attempt to achieve union recognition for the Grunwick workers was ultimately unsuccessful, ending in a hunger strike outside the headquarters of the Trades Union Congress, which she accused of betrayal, in 1978.

But the strike proved a seminal moment in the British labour movement, drawing attention to the overlooked plight of female migrant workers – and generating admiration for Desai’s tenacity.

Desai, who died just before Christmas after several months of illness, was known for her force of character, eloquence and courage. A photograph of her confronting a row of police officers, a handbag dangling from her arm, became one of the iconic images of the 1970s.

Originally from India, she had arrived in Britain eight years previously, after migrating to Tanzania. Perhaps her best-known statement was issued in confrontation with a manager at Grunwick, who she told: “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. 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 those lions, Mr Manager.”

The metaphor was revisited tonight by Jack Dromey MP, who was secretary of the Brent Trades Council during the dispute and a close comrade of Desai. “She was 4ft 11 tall, but an absolute lioness,” he said. “A quite remarkable woman with an absolutely extraordinary turn of phrase.”

He recalled how Desai stood before a meeting of more than 80 “husbands, fathers and brothers” of women who worked at Grunwick after it was alleged they had been discouraged from joining the picket lines. “I will never forget how she said: ‘We, the women, are determined to make a stand and nobody will get in the way of that, including from within our own families.”

Desai’s own husband, who survives her along with their two sons, is known to be intensely proud of his wife. Her commitment to the cause of women in the trade union movement was unrelenting, even in her old age.

Professor Ruth Pearson from Leeds University, who conducted a research initiative into Asian female strikers, and was in touch with Desai as recently as last year, recalled her support for women dismissed by Gate Gourmet, the airline catering firm with a processing plant near Heathrow.

“At one of the benefits for the workers sacked by Gate Gourmet in 2005, she sent a congratulatory message and a cheque from herself as the strike leader of the Grunwick dispute,” Pearson said. “She recognised that because of the actions taken by herself and her co-strikers Asian women today are able to join trade unions, to take industrial action.”

Desai’s last known public statement came in January this year, in an interview with the Guardian. “I am proud of what I did,” she said. “They wanted to break us down, but we did not break.”


Remembering  unsung heroines of our modern history

By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

She was tiny, not quite 5ft tall and almost always in a sari and cardi, carrying a plastic handbag and a coat that couldn’t possibly have kept her warm

Mix the heady defiance and ire of Boadicea with Gandhi’s steely obstinacy and sense of injustice and you get Mrs Jayaben Desai, the British Asian woman who back in 1976 became the most improbable icon and voice of the Labour movement in this country – a working-class warrior who led the resistance to yet another boss, George Ward (backed by the right-wing Tory fraternity), who bloated his profits through paying pitifully low wages. She died last week, aged 77, and needs to be honoured by those of us who knew her and all the others who can never forget the long strike she led on behalf of her co-workers and the wider blue-collar collective. Much such authentic history is deleted from our speedy lives and national memory is, as we know, selective and manipulated. In today’s Britain, the “working classes” have been recast as white, unhappy and anti-immigrant – a fictionalised narrative of conflict that discards the truth with shocking carelessness because it suits the politics and dramas of our times.

So, Mrs Desai’s story first. She was tiny, not quite 5ft tall and almost always in a sari and cardi, carrying a plastic handbag and a coat that couldn’t possibly have kept her warm. Her hair was tied in a plait or a bun and between her brows was her tikka, a dot worn by Hindu women. I interviewed her several times – she reminded me of my mum, short too, who wore saris with cardis. Both taught themselves functional English and then used the language, freely and imaginatively, like a rebellious artist does his colour palette. Both had arrived here from East Africa and had Indian ancestry. Like other exiles, they had to do stuff they had never done before, adjust to life in a cold climate and the poverty faced by involuntary migrants. They had to toughen up.

Mrs Desai worked for Ward’s mail-order photo-developing company Grunwick, which employed mostly female Asian immigrants who were desperate for jobs. Before the strike, Desai claimed they worked long hours, took home a third of the average factory pay and were forbidden union membership. One woman was sacked for objecting and a handful of her mates walked out in protest, starting a two-year strike that pulled in support from miners, postal workers, MPs, trades unionists and young people. Desai said Grunwick was not a factory but a “zoo”. Night after night she was on our screens holding placards calling for worker solidarity and rights. Paramilitary police units used extreme force – not since 1926 had such brutality been seen against strikers. The cowardly TUC betrayed the strikers and Margaret Thatcher, understanding the power of moral outrage, set about slowly castrating legitimate union activity until it was only a memory and never a real threat again.

We are entering those times once more, and it feels as if her gods took Mrs Desai away before she was forced to inhabit a country where workers count for nothing and must know that.

Other Asian women, too, before and after Desai, have taken up big causes, showing grit and tenacity. Britons know about the brave souls who help victims of evil practices within their families and communities – like the counsellors running the Muslim Women’s Helpline and the undaunted activists at Southall Black Sisters. But ask most of our citizens about the campaigners who fought for universal rights, access and fairness, and most will not know any of the names or stories.

Take Cornelia Sorabji, an Indian woman of great beauty and intellect, the first woman ever to study law at Oxford (in 1889) and later successfully to challenge the discriminatory rules that forbade women entry to the Bar. She enlisted the support of influential men and lobbied with sharp arguments and charm, and forced open the heavy doors guarding the most forbidding and masculine professions of this land. I wonder how many female barristers know of this pioneer who always wore beautiful saris.

In 1910, there was Princess Sophia Singh, the half-Indian daughter of the Maharajah Duleep Singh, who was deposed from his throne by the British when a boy prince, exiled to this country, obliged to hand over the Koh-i-Noor diamond to the Queen who was fond of the chap and ensured he had money and palatial homes here. Sophia turned her back on all that and joined the Pankhursts and other leading suffragettes to fight for votes for all. She was behind the Women’s Tax Resistance League urging women to withhold taxes until they had the vote. She was frequently in the courts herself, refusing to pay and making stirring speeches that gained wide publicity.

Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan is better known – but again, not widely so. Her Indian father was a Sufi teacher in London and her white mother was related to the founder of Christian Science. They fled to France to escape the racism they faced in Britain as a mixed-race family, and Khan was raised and educated in Paris. In 1939, the family returned to England. She trained as a wireless operator and was recruited into the British secret service and sent back to France. She was thought to be unusually gutsy and quietly efficient. She transmitted information until she was betrayed in 1943, and captured by the Gestapo. For a year she was tortured and in 1944 shot in Dachau. She never broke, she never told. Posthumously she was praised for her distinguished service to this country. She could have returned to London after her early stints, but understood her looks and gentility made her a good spy and chose dangerous service instead.

There are others – and today’s example might be the indefatigable Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty – fighting day and night to keep safe our sacred and eternal rights and protections. Like Mrs Desai, her struggles are for all of us, for a better future than we might have if did nothing.

Asian women in the public imagination are docile, obliging, adorned, full of sexy secrets, veiled, afraid, obedient, keepers of home and hearth, or part of the furniture. But provoked, they become lions, said Mrs Desai to her boss, and then there is no stopping their moral passion. Remember that – and them. The sinewy Michael Gove bends history to his will, part of his re-education programme. I don’t expect he will want these stories included – these women represent defiance and we don’t want that, do we, in Compliant Britain?

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