Jayaben Desai: architect of women workers' movement
At 147 centimetres (4 feet and 10 inches), as fearless and eloquent as she was tiny, Jayaben Desai, an immigrant factory worker, born in Gujarat of aristocratic roots and exiled from Tanganyika, challenged the might of Britain's industry and its conciliation and arbitration system in the 1970s.
While the dispute itself ended in defeat for the strikers, it had far-reaching consequences for the trade union movement and brought public recognition of the plight of migrant workers.
In 1955, Jayaben married Suryakant Desai, a tyre-factory manager in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). From 1956 until 1969, they lived comfortable lives as members of East Africa's mercantile Asian middle class. On their expulsion from Africa, they arrived in Brent where her husband found an unskilled job and Jayaben worked as a sewing machinist in Harlesden. In 1974, with two children, she joined Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in Willesden, North London.
The firm employed mainly female, Asian migrants and did not permit union membership. On August 20, 1976 one Devshi Bhudia was dismissed for working too slowly. Three others walked out in support and when Desai proposed to leave, she was dismissed and her son followed. According to The Guardian, her parting words were: "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."
On August 23, the six began picketing outside the factory and subsequently joined a union, the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff.
A further 75 workers walked out for not being able to join the union. On September 2, 1976 these workers, who became known as "the strikers in saris", were dismissed.
A thousand workplaces across Britain embraced their cause. By July 11, 1977, 20,000 unionists marched on the factory.
The Labour government, led by James Callaghan, established a court of inquiry under Sir Leslie (soon to be Lord) Scarman, who later recommended union recognition and reinstatement. The company rejected the recommendations and the House of Lords ruled that it had the right not to recognise the union. The strikers conceded defeat. Nevertheless, the dispute helped raise the profile of Asian women within Britain's trade union movement.
Post-Grunwick, she gave sewing classes at the Brent Indian Association and started a dressmaking course at a community college in Harrow.
Desai is survived by her husband and their two sons.
Born April 2, 1933; died December 23, 2010.
* The National
Published: January 1, 2011 04:00 AM