social reform

Jayaben Desai

This weeks Illustrated Woman in History was submitted by Janaki Mistry It is featured in the Women’s History Month 2019 zine. Click here to buy

Jayaben Desai led the Grunwick Strike (1976) for low paid factory workers and changed the way immigrant workers are treated today.

On 20th January 1976, Desai walked out of her low paid factory job in protest of the working conditions, pay inequality and institutionalised racism within the company. She had been instrumental in convincing her fellow workers to join the Apex (Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff) Union, however The Grunwick factory refused to recognise the union. 

Desai and her fellow workers went on strike, and as she left, she told her boss “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.”

Workers from all over Britain, including the Yorkshire and Scottish miners, joined the picket line outside the factory. By June 1977 there were over 20,000 protestors outside Dorris Hill Tube station. The postal workers of Cricklewood joined in the strike action, refusing to deliver mail to and from the factory. As Grunwick relied heavily on the postal service to receive films and dispatch processed photos this could have been a turning point, but unfortunately the postal workers were threatened with legal action and forced to abandon their efforts.

Desai was angry at the lack of support provided by the Trade Unions, and in November 1977 went on hunger strike outside the Trades Union Congress headquarters. 

After two years, the Grunwick strike ended in what seemed like a defeat for the workers. There were some positive outcomes to come from the strike action, as workers who remained in Grunwick were treated more fairly and pensions were put in place. When the factory moved, making it difficult for the workers to reach the new premises, a van was provided to collect them.

Jayaben Desai challenged the passive south Asian stereotype in leading the largest mobilisation in British labour-movement history and inspired thousands of workers, black and white, men and women, to defend the rights of migrant women workers. challenged the passive south Asian stereotype. 

Leave a Reply