In 2016 , Jayaben Desai was named as one of the top seven women in the BBC Radio4 Woman’s Hour Power List to have had the greatest impact on British Women’s lives in the past 70 years. Described by The Independent as the ‘unlikely and reluctant star of the British trade union movement’, she was a fighter who championed the cause of women workers and immigrant’s employment rights.
Born in Gujarat, India in 1933, she actively supported Indian independence. When she married in 1955, she settled with her husband, Suryakant Desai, in Tanzania, where he worked as a manager in a tyre factory and they had a comfortable lifestyle. However, in 1964, tens of thousands of immigrants were expelled from the country and the Desais moved to Britain. Mrs Desai (as she was always known) initially worked part-time as a sewing machinist in a sweatshop whilst bringing up their two children. In 1974 she found work, along with many other female immigrants, at Grunwick, a mail-order film processing plant in Willesden, London.
“What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo.”
In 1976 at the age of 43, she led a walk-out on a baking hot August day, protesting against low pay, long hours and the poor treatment of the immigrant workers.
Just 4ft10 in stature, she told her 6ft tall manager “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 bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.”
Initially, 100 others joined her in the walk-out and they were supported by the postal workers in the local post sorting office in Cricklewood who refused to take the firm’s mail, crippling the business. This move almost won the dispute for the strikers but in November 1976 a legal challenge was launched (backed by then-opposition leader Margaret Thatcher) and the postal worker’s support was withdrawn.
Undeterred, Mrs Desai did not give up. The strikers were advised by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) to join APEX, a white-collar union. A strike committee was formed and they took the cause on a nationwide tour, visiting over 1000 workplaces, including engineering factories in Glasgow and coal mines in South Wales.
“It was amazing, let me tell you, the police were charging them with horses and still they were standing strong.”
What followed became known as the Grunwick Dispute, a two-year strike that resulted in over 500 arrests and violent clashes with police on picket lines and eventually, a weakening of the trade unions. A parliamentary inquiry led by Lord Scarman was set up to resolve the dispute – Scarman recommended recognition and reinstatement of the strikers but the Grunwick boss, George Ward, backed by an emerging Thatcherite-right, refused to back down and the strikers eventually conceded defeat in July 1978.
The strikers were not reinstated but some concessions relating to workers’ pay and pensions were won. And, the greater victory was arguably the message it sent about immigrant workers’ place in society and their determination to stand up for their rights.
In an interview by Hannah Phung of Brent Museum Mrs Desai said: “It was amazing, let me tell you, it was amazing… tears were in my eyes to see these people… they were hurting themselves and the police were charging them with horses and everything and still they were standing strong.”
After the strike, Mrs Desai’s health declined, but a sewing job led to teaching for the Brent Indian Association. Not one to rest on her laurels, she pioneered an Asian dressmaking course at Harrow College, she gained her driver’s licence at 60, and travelled extensively with her husband in their retirement.
Jayaben Desai died after a long illness in December 2010 at the age of 77, survived by her husband and two sons.
Such an inspiring woman! What would she think of today’s zero-hours contracts?