An Asian Woman Who Fought Back – Jayaben Desai

It was a seminal moment in the history of the British Trade Union movement when in the 1970s a South Asian woman challenged the working practices of British employers through a series of protests referred to as ‘The Grunwick Strike’.

The woman who marshalled the Grunwick movement, Jayaben Desai, had moved to Britain after leaving Africa where she had been part of the middle class. Upon moving to Britain she realised that her working options were restricted due to her ethnicity. Grumwick was a mail order film processing company and Jayaben went to work there enduring long hours on low wages. Fed up of being badly treated she told her manager one day that, ‘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 bit your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager’. She then walked out and 100 fellow workers joined her.

So began a two year battle for the workers at Grunwick to be awarded trade union protection. Jayaben’s cause gathered thousands of supporters. Sadly, the fight was lost in large part due to Margaret Thatcher’s support for Grunwick but the moral cause was won by Jayaben because it brought the labour movement together in a way that no other cause had done before. In the process the social dialogue was opened up to embrace an awareness of the difficulties that immigrant workers faced and trade unions began to take note of the rights of minorities and women.

One small act by a woman sidelined by society that led to giant leaps for all. 


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