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The Grunwick Dispute
Jayaben Desai: 1933–2010
Jayaben Desai: 1933–2010
Jayaben Desai was born in 1933 in Dharmaj, a village in Gujarat, India, to a landowning family. She was allowed to do things that girls were not expected to do in those days - like playing on the streets and flying kites with her two brothers.
As a teenager, she took part in the Indian Independence Movement against the British rule, going on demonstrations in her village when she was a student.
When she was 24, Jayaben got married to Suryakant Desai, who owned a business in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. After her wedding, Jayaben stayed on in India to complete her tailoring course, which is when her first child was born. Jayaben: "Hurry up or we'll be late for college!".
She joined Suryakant in Tanzania when their son was nearly two. After the birth of her second son, Jayaben did some home based sewing work for a few years.
After independence, many East African countries adopted policies to promote the African population. Together with thousands of other Asian families in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania the Desai family left. They came to India in 1964. But this was not their final destination. Suryakant - " After the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act is passed, people like us who hold British passports will have to get a visa to enter Britain. Jayaben - "You must act now before they change the law" Suryakant - "Let me go to Bombay to see what i can do"
Jayaben - "Your father has gone all the way to London, with one little suitcase! He wants us to join him in a few months. Jayaben son - "Can i take my toys?"
Jayaben and their children joined Suryakant in London in October 1967. Jayaben - "It gets dark so early. All the houses look the same, and the trees - they look burnt, darn and bare. I had heard that London was this grand place. It is just not what i imagined!
There was a lot of racial discrimination in the UK in the 1960s and 70s and it was difficult for migrants to get housing. Landlord - "No, there is no room to rent here."
Friend of Jayaben - "Jayaben why don't you come to Grunwick, where i work? They give jobs to people like us there." Jayaben started work at Grunwick film processing laboratory in Willesden, North London in 1974.
Jayaben and Friend - "Why don't you take a break now, you have been here since early morning." "If I stop now, my name will slip down that list - I need this job."
The managers made strict rules and did not treat the women workers with respect. Grunwick worker - "I feel ashamed to ask to go to the toilet." Jayaben - "Why do you feel ashamed, when he has no shame making you ask loudly, why should you feel ashamed?"
Manager at Grunwick - "Stop chattering like monkeys - This is not a zoo! and Mrs Desai, I want you to work overtime today!" Jayaben - "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 to your tune, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager. I have had enough!
Jayaben and a group of workers walked out in protest on 20th August 1976 and joined a trade union, APEX.
Jayaben travelled across the country to win support from workers and their unions. Jayaben - "We will not give up!"
Jayaben - "Where is Sarlaben today? She is usually the first to come here every morning. Woman Striker - "Her parents stopped her from coming - they think that standing here all day and shouting slogans like this will bring shame on the family."
As support for the strikers grew, there were mass pickets which brought thousands of ordinary people and workers from other places to the narrow streets outside Grunwick. The police were also out in force and were quite aggressive to the strikers and their supporters.
Woman Striker - "Have you heard what the Scarman report recommends? They say that the company should give us our jobs back!" Jayaben - "But the Grunwick boss refuses to do so, let's take to the streets again!" But in the Autumn of 1978 the Union withdrew their support for the mass pickets.
In protest, four Grunwick strikers staged a hunger strike outside the headquarters of the trades union congress on 21 November 1978. Woman Striker - "What began as a fight for union recognition has ended up with us challenging our own union!" Jayaben - "Don't forget, we won people's hearts. So many ordinary menbers of the unions came to support us, even if their leaders turned their back on us."
But the union did not change its decision and the strike was finally called off in July 1978. Jayaben went on to teach an Asian dressmaking course at Harrow College, Wembley.
The GMB Union recognised her contribution with a gold badge of honour at their national conference in June 2007. Jayaben, who died on 23rd December 2010 aged 77, is now celebrated for changing the trade unions attitudes towards non-white and women workers.