In light of International Women’s Day I ask us all to remember Jayaben Desai

Migrating from India to Africa and then to Britain and soon becoming a champion for worker’s rights, women’s right, equal rights, respect and trade unionism, was the tremendous journey of Desai. Jayaben Desai arrived in Britain shortly after 1960 finding work in the Grunwick photo processing factory in North London, where she found herself amongst a community of migrant workers. At the Grunwick factory, Jayaben saw hers and her fellow worker’s rights, being dismissed abandoned and abused. Desai was not a factory worker, she was a leader for change and a believer in worker’s rights. But I don’t mean a 28 day holiday scheme, maternity leave: what she demanded was basic human rights. Desai wanted it to be acceptable to use the toilet when she needed, to leave work when her shift finished without being expected to complete unpaid over time, to wear trousers and not a skirt if that was one’s preference, and to be called by her name. Desai wanted respect for the workers of Grunwick factory, but on Friday 20th August 1976 when confronted last minute to complete over time she decided to respond by standing up for her rights and not giving in to the intimidating, authoritative management. She paved the way for a landmark peaceful revolution by first, showing her demands for basic worker rights, and left the factory in protest starting a strike, with many women following her footsteps.

‘What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. There are many types of animals in a zoo. Some are monkeys who dance to your tune, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager. I have had enough – I want my freedom!’ (Desai, 1976)

Desai and her workers left the factory protesting in defence of their dignity as a result of the cruel treatment by their managers. To contextualise her situation, it is important to recognise that being asked to work overtime just minutes before your set shift is about to finish was not a lucrative opportunity to earn some extra money that night, it’s a question of sacrificing your second shift at home. Women like Desai would return home and cook for their families, their children, their husbands, and work at home, somewhat continuing their shift, in a different environment. Having the time you are allowed to use the toilet controlled, your health put at risk due to lack of hygiene for the Grunwick workers and asked to sacrifice time helping your family on an ongoing basis was an absurd commonality for the lives of people like Jayaben Desai. Equally, work for women like Desai was not easy to find, and protesting put many families sole income at risk- thus her decision to put all at stake and lead the strike was a commendable act that does not lose its significance today.

Desai and her workers sought support from a trade union, in order to improve their rights as workers and subsequently joined APEX (Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff).

Initially, they picketed outside the Grunwick factory, until the strikers cause was recognised by the national trade union movement which resulted in the ‘strikers in saris (their traditional Indian dress)’ travelling across the country informing other factor workers of their protest, raising general awareness, resulting in other trade unionists supporting the cause of Desai and her fellow mistreated Grunwick strikers.

June 1977 witnessed tremendous marches supporting the Grunwick strikers, with some marches seeing over 20,000 packed onto the lanes of Dollis Hill tube station. Meanwhile, Grunwick factory owner George Ward garnered support from right-wing organisations and immediately declined all recommendations of a government inquiry, which was in favour of the worker’s cause. Consequently, the trade union then withdrew their support for Desai’s cause. The strikers did not give up and began a hunger strike outside the Trades Union Congress in November 1977 but even this act of resilience and determination to see their rights respected did not alter the union’s stance.

Credit: The Bubble. 

Desai famously remarked:

“Trade union support is like honey on the elbow – you can smell it, you can feel it, but you cannot taste it.” (Desai, 1977)

However, this cause is one we must remember, learn from and talk about. We must ensure Jayaben Desai’s name is rightly remembered. We must ensure she is a part of our history lessons, our international women’s day celebrations. Her message and clear belief must be implemented into our day to day lives, and no person should have their dignity and basic human rights sacrificed, and nor should any valuable hardworking migrant worker be subject to discrimination. Women like Desai have led brave lives, it only takes stepping into her shoes and imagining how it must feel to work at the Grunwick factory, a new language, culture, place and an unexpected move to another county. North London wasn’t portrayed as a paradise and she did not choose to move here, these circumstances were beyond her control.

Desai’s optimism is what we should remember and explains why we should continuously protest for the cause for human rights, eradicate discrimination and recognise the power of people coming together:

‘Because of us, the people who stayed in Grunwick got a much better deal. When the factory moved, the van used to come to their home and pick them up because it was difficult for them to get to the new place. Can you imagine that? And they get a pension today! And we get nothing. That was because of us, because of our struggle.’ (Jayaben Desai)

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