[Cross posted at white noise]

in the 1970s, Grunwick photo processing factory in Willesden, London employed mainly Asian women – their workforce was 80-90% Asian and mainly female. This was a deliberate policy on the part of owner George Ward and his management. They preferred female Asian workers because they were cheap, docile, and easily bullied.

In Finding a Voice (see reference below), Amrit Wilson quotes Jayaben Desai’s description of working conditions at Grunwick in 1976:

On two sides there are glass cabins for the management so that they can watch you as well. He is English. He moves around and keeps an eye. You have to put up your hand and ask even to go to the toilet. If someone is sick, say a woman has a period or something, they wouldn’t allow her home without a doctor’s certificate, and if someone’s child was sick and they had to take it to the clinic or hospital they would say “Why are you going, ask someone else from your family to go”…

Even pregnant women who wanted to go to the clinic were told “you must arrange to go at the weekend.” On the rare occasions when a woman did go during working hours she would be warned that that was the last time. Everyone would be paid a different wage so no one knew what anyone else was getting. And to force people to work they would make them fill in a job sheet saying how many films they had booked in. If someone did a large number they would bring the job sheet around and show the others and say “She has done so many, you also must.” Not that they were paid more!

The mail order room at the factory, where orders were processed and prepared for dispatch, was particularly bad: this is where Desai worked. There were no windows there or air conditioning, and Desai described the place as a zoo. The workers earned from as little as £28 a week, for 40 hours work, at a time when the average national wage was £72 and the average full time wage for a female manual worker in London was £44 a week. Although wages varied, so as to keep the workforce divided, white people were consistently paid more than nonwhites. Overtime was compulsory, even at a moment’s notice and regardless of whether the worker had children to collect. Sackings were commonplace, and indeed staff turnover was 100% (i.e. on average, employees stayed for a year at most).

In 1976, a busy time for the photo processing factory with everyone (else) enjoying the long hot summer, things reached breaking point. One man was summarily sacked for failing to complete his allotted work. He and three others walked out. Mrs Desai was told to stay and work overtime. She refused and walked out with her son.

Those six had no idea about how to start a trade union or conduct an employment dispute, but they knew that this is what they wanted to do, realising that it was the only way to change conditions. They organised a petition which many other workers signed, saying that they wanted to join a trade union. Between them, they found out what to do and who to contact and what began was a two year strike that hit the headlines time and again. There were mass pickets, violence in which both policemen and picketers were injured, sympathetic action elsewhere (including at the post office where workers refused to carry Grunwick mail, and at Kodak where workers blacked photo supplies delivered to Grunwick). Ministers joined the picket line; other ministers decried the strike action; labour prime minister James Callaghan wanted to warn off Arthur Scargill from supporting the strikers.

Although much of the violence that got reported was violence by the picketers, about 3 times as many picketers were injured as police officers. A local doctor was reported as saying “Two types of injury are particularly common: the first is a result of testicles being grabbed by the police. The second is a result of women having their breasts grabbed.” Equally there were many false arrests. Desai herself was arrested for assault: which was particularly incredible since she (a tiny woman) was accused of assaulting two men who were standing on the opposite side of a high fence. The charges were dropped for, ahem, lack of evidence.

Eventually, the strikers gave in.

They had only ambiguous support from conflicted union bosses, despite much popular support from members of other unions. For example, when legal action was threatened against the UPW (Union of Postal Workers) in respect of the post office strike, they ordered their members back to work immediately, and then failed to take further action when a promised ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) resolution did not materialise. Desai and her colleagues even resorted to hunger strike in protest at the TUC’s (Trades Union Congress) lack of helps, which only resulted in their being disciplined by APEX, their own union. At the same time, NAFF (National Association for Freedom, now The Freedom Association) was providing a high level of support to the completely intransigent George Wood, even to the extent of helping him to circumvent the postal workers’ action, and the letter of the law was used against the strikers and their supporters.

Nevertheless, this long and militant action which was led by an Asian woman on behalf of a workforce of primarily Asian women remains an important part of trade union history, and the history of British race relations.

It was the first major strike action in which unions gave any real support to Asian workers, never mind female Asian workers. And it made the exploiting employers wake up to the fact that not all Asian women can be relied upon to provide docile, submissive labour regardless of working conditions.

I’d like to finish with another quotation (again, via Wilson) of Jayaben Desai. This one is about her encounters with George Ward.

He would come to the picket line and try to mock us and insult us. One day he said “Mrs Desai, you can’t win in a sari, I want to see you in a mini.” I said “Mrs Gandhi, she wears a sari and she is ruling a vast country.”… On my second encounter with Ward he said “Mrs Desai, I’ll tell the whole Patel community that you are a loose woman.” I said “I am here with this placard! Look! I am showing all England that you are a bad man. You are going to tell only the Patel community but I am going to tell all of England.”

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Sources / further reading:

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