British Asian women led the ultimate fight against injustice and its changed the landscape of workers rights ever since

40 years ago, Britain’s capital witnessed a revolt from an unlikely group of South Asian women, working in the Grunwick factory in Willesden Green. A new exhibition tells the story of the strikes, which has influenced future strike action in the city. “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.” The above quote comes from Jayaben Desai, a woman who charismatically led her co-workers to strike action. It was 20 August 1976 and one of the hottest days of the year. Grunwick was a film processing factory. It processed photographic film and then sent the pictures back by mail order. This was hugely popular in the 1970s, and during the summer the manager Malcolm Alden was keen to process as many films as possible. But against the backdrop of widespread racism and difficult situations in their country of origin, workers at the factory of mostly South Asian origin were receiving a wage well below the national average and were forced to do overtime. It was one of these summer days when Desai was about to leave that Alden demanded she stay and do overtime. Three workers had already been sacked and another three had walked out in protest. When she refused to stay he placed her on a formal warning. Desai walked out shouting: “Friends listen to this – what is happening to me today will happen to you tomorrow. This man wouldn’t speak to white workers in the way he speaks to us.” (…) Further support for the strikers came tumbling in through locals, organisations and companies and Grunwick found themselves at the brunt of a boycott. This boycott was one of the most significant events of trade union history as the Union of Postal Workers (UPW) refused to deliver the film that came out of Grunwick. Management at the factory still refused to meet the workers demands even after a Parliamentary debate and ACAS (an organisation that resolves employment disputes) got involved. Picketing grew but so did police action and many of the strikers were arrested.

Sophia Akram in These women led the ultimate fight against injustice and its changed the landscape of workers rights ever since (Canary)