British readers currently enjoying their middle years will likely remember the summer of 1976 – 40 years ago. This was the hottest summer since records with 16 consecutive days of 30C plus temperatures recorded at Heathrow Airport between June and July. The Country experienced droughts, forest fires in the South and crops were devastated. Up to 45 days with no rain caused reservoirs to run dry in some areas. By the time the weather broke in August it wasn’t just Martha and the Vandellas who were Dancing in the Streets! I remember 1976 as the year I moved from Junior to Senior School and I recall watching daily TV news reports of ‘industrial unrest’ at a business about 5 miles from my home. I saw a petite Asian lady wearing a heavy cardigan and carrying a large handbag, walking along lines of police, and rallying strikers with the aid of a megaphone. This lady was Jayaben Desai.
Mrs Jayaben Desai was born in April 1933 in the village of Dharmaj in Gujarat, India. As a child she enjoyed relative freedom for a girl, being allowed to play outside with her brothers. As a teenage student Jayaben became involved in the Indian Independence Movement. At the age of 24 she married Suryakant Desai, a businessman living in Dar-es-salaam, Tanzania but Jayaben remained in India for a time to complete her college course. It was around this time that she gave birth to her first child and she finally moved to Tanzania to join her husband a couple of years later. Once there, she did sewing work in order to help support her family.
This was the time when East African countries achieved independence from the Empire and they began to treat their own people much more favourable than their immigrants. Finding life increasingly difficult, the family made plans to emigrate to England. A sense of urgency was created by the Commonwealth Immigrants Act due to become law in 1968, and with it would come the need to obtain a Visa to enter Great Britain. Suryakant made his way to London, with Jayaben and the children planning to join him later. They arrived in October 1967.
The family was greeted by racial discrimination of the ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ sort and the parents struggled to find both work and somewhere to live. Some employers capitalised on this source of new labour and engaged Asian workers on poor terms and conditions including long hours, poor pay and otherwise ‘sweating’ them. In addition, these workers did not enjoy the benefits of Union representation. One such alleged exploiter was Grunwick Photo Processing Laboratories Ltd of Chapter Road, Dollis Hill, London NW10. Encouraged by a friend, Jayaben started work in the despatch room at Grunwick in 1974.
By the sweltering summer of 1976, conditions had become increasingly difficult in the factory. The air-conditioning had broken down and women were required to ask permission to take a toilet break and they felt generally disrespected. After learning of the alleged unfair dismissal of her son and being instructed to work compulsory overtime during August, Jayaben issued a rebuke to her manager: “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.”
Mrs Desai and others walked out on 20 August 1976, joined the Union APEX and were promptly dismissed. A strike committee was formed and Jayaben travelled the country to win support for the strike. Local postal workers at the Cricklewood Sorting Office supported them and started to boycott mail bound for the plant. Mass pickets were established at the premises, including coaches of miners led by Arthur Scargill. Over the coming months clashes between pickets and the police increased with the latter being very aggressive at times and making a total of 550 arrests, he highest in an industrial dispute since he General Strike. The Met Police deployed their notorious Special Patrol Group, members of which would, a few months later, be implicated in the death of special needs teacher and anti-fascist protester Blair Peach.
The embarrassed Labour Government of Jim Callaghan commissioned a judicial enquiry led by Lord Scarman which recommended that the strikers be given heir jobs back. The company’s management, supported by the right-wing National Association for Freedom, refused to do this. A stalemate ensued and eventually Union leaders withdrew their support for the strike which was called off in July 1978.
Unhappy with that withdrawal of support by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), a small group of women including Jayaben staged a hunger strike outside TUC Headquarters. Jayaben later returned to work teaching Asian Dressmaking at a local Further Education college.
In 2007 Jayaben Desai was awarded the was awarded the GMB Union’s Gold Badge of Honour in recognition of her role in changing the attitudes of Trade Unions to women and non-white workers. Towards the end of her life Mrs Desai told Sharfraz Manzoor (for the Guardian – see below) that she remained proud of her role in the events at Grunwick 34 years earlier. Jayaben Desai died in December 2010.
Finding A Voice: Asian Women in Britain (Paperback)
- Publisher: Virago; 1st edition (6 Nov. 1978)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0860680126
Grunwick (A Penguin special) (Paperback)
by Joe Rogaly (Author)
- Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; First edition (27 Oct. 1977)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140523251
Fort Grunwick (Paperback)
by George Ward
- Publisher: Maurice Temple Smith Ltd; Reprint edition (31 Dec. 1977)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0851171478
Grunwick 40 Commemerative Events
at Brent Museum and Archives
Address: Willesden Library Centre, 95 High Rd, London NW10 2SF
Commemorating the 40thanniversary of the Grunwick dispute. An initiative of Brent Trades Council and the Willesden Green Town Team.