In 1976 South Asian women workers who had made Britain their home, led a strike against poor working conditions in a British factory. Lakshmi Patel was one of the South Asian women who picketed the Grunwick film-processing factory in north London for two years
Video link https://youtu.be/onWZ1SE-5Ok
In 1976 South Asian women workers who had made Britain their home, led a strike against poor working conditions in a British factory. Lakshmi Patel was one of the South Asian women who picketed the Grunwick film-processing factory in north London for two years, defying the stereotype of submissive South Asian women. They gained the support of tens of thousands of trade unionists along the way. Lakshmi talks to Farhana Haider about how the strike was a defining moment for race relations in the UK in the 1970s.
But we begin with an example of hard-won workers’ rights in Britain. And if
that phrase conjures up images of beefy miners or dockers confronting their bosses
you might be in for a bit of a surprise. Because we’re going back to 1976 when
a group of South Asian women led a strike over poor working conditions. These were
strikers in Saris, they took the lead but eventually more than 20,000 people joined
the protest which lasted for two years. Farhana Haider has been speaking to
Lakshmi Patel who was an employee at the Grunwick film processing factory and
took part in the strike.
The Grunwick film processing factory in North London employed mainly women of
South Asian origin. Most of whom were migrants from East Africa, they were
commonly thought of as hardworking and passive, the women of the Grunwick
factory would challenge this stereotype as they walked out over what they
claimed was un fair treatment. They also wanted to join a Union.
out on the picket line until conditions improve and we get Union recognition. Conditions
will improve at Grunwick once we’re allowed to join a Union.
had seen many of her colleagues treated poorly.
sit in that room. He would observe us from that room, he would keep an eye on us.
If we were going to the toilet if we took too long then he would ask `why? What
where you up to?`
a lot of Indian women working at Grunwick, many of them were very scared, they
were afraid of the supervisors and couldn’t do anything about it.
she walked out in support of a sacked colleague, here she is talking to the BBC
about that day.
give me my card straight away, and I walk out.
of August five others including her son had joined her. They picketed the gates
and they tried to persuade other workers to leave the factory and attend a
meeting to draw up a list of grievances.
felt strongly we needed to have a Union at the factory so we decided that all
of us would come out at 3 o’clock that day. Jayaben wanted it because of the
poor working conditions, and being forced to do overtime.
walk out, she was determined that they stay out for as long as it took.
have so many rights in this country, then why can’t we have them too? She used
to live just behind my house, we used to make the banners for the protests in
my back garden.
for better wages, a better working environment and better treatment. The
Grunwick factory management refused to recognise their Union membership. After
months of picketing outside the factory the women did however gain support from
other Trade Unions who began to advise them. Here’s Trade Unionist Jack Dromey.
for delegations of strikers to go to 2,000 workplaces throughout Britain in a 35-week
period. What you saw was the remarkable spectre of in Jayaben Desai’s words ”little Asian ladies with dots on their head going
into steel mills, car factories, engineering factories aircraft factories.”
started out as a small industrial dispute grew day by day. And by June and July
1977 up to 20,000 people were taking part in protests outside the factory
office workers, mostly all the Unions supported us.
there to support us.
Unionists and the police as Grunwick’s management began bussing in workers. The
struggle on the streets on North London started to feature nightly on the TV
the first busload of Grunwick workers. Instead of stopping as usual the bus
drove straight in scattering pickets’ MPs and police.
than a film processing plant.
were brought in, and they had a tough time from the start. [chants of Police
skirmishes and violence. On one occasion when a policeman was injured the women
led by Jayaben visited him in hospital with a cake to apologise.
recognition and improved conditions despite the fact they had been on the
picket line for months. Lakshmi was pregnant and had a baby boy during the
dispute. In an effort to defuse the situation and inquiry was set up by the government.
were not scared, there were a lot of policemen you could see them all over the
street, and only Jayaben Desai was in the middle.
part in mediation. Two years after the strike began; despite mass support the Trade
Unions felt the dispute could not be won and withdrew their support. In July 1978
the strike was called off, all those women who remained on the picket line were
fired, including Lakshmi Patel. But she doesn’t believe the dispute was a
and that the Unions joined the picket line to help us. They could see that we
had got to do something for ourselves and our women, we felt that Asian women
in England fought for two years for their rights. It didn’t work out, but we were
still proud of that fact. All the women felt that we are something because we
put up such a fight for Union recognition, we didn’t give up. I’m so proud that
we fought for our rights.
some concessions had been won, as she explained in an BBC interview.
with the staff has already changed, the wages was increased, don’t you think it
was a victory? In my opinion victory. Although
the reinstatement of staff and union recognition was lost, every victory you
can’t get a 100% victory can you?
many as a pivotal moment for South Asian women workers in Britain. It raised
their profile and challenged stereotypes, Lakshmi Patel found another job soon
after being fired, she is now retired and still lives in London. In 2017 a
mural was unveiled at the site of the dispute, to honour the women who fought
so hard for their rights.
that strike in the 1970’s has been seen as something of a turning point in
British Industrial relations. And I’m joined now by Dr Sundari Anitha from the
University of Lincoln who has studied the Grunwick strike in great detail.
relations, how would you see the importance of Grunwick?
Asian women stood up in defence of their rights as workers, because they had
done that several times before. What was important was that this was the first
time that white working class in Britain recognised also the common cause with
migrant women workers.
workers and South Asian women workers protested against unequal pay, but they
found that they had to challenge not just their employers but also their Trade
Unions who wouldn’t stand with them. And so, this was seen as a new era in Trade
Union recognition of minority and migrant women workers’ rights.
protest it wasn’t as if the South Asian women strikers exactly saw eye to eye
with the Unions then wanted to adopt their case. The tactics did vary.
really. What we know now from looking at the documents that were released since
then was that a lot of the pressure to end the support of the strike from Trade
Unions came from the Labour government of the day. It had a wafer-thin majority
and it saw Grunwick as this public order issue, and therefore they put pressure
on the Trade Unions to withdraw their support.
of the Trade Unions, ordinary workers turned out in their thousands to support
the Grunwick strikers. But the Union bureaucracy initially supported them but
gradually turned away from them, and that’s why the strike was lost.
across the country for the standing of the South Asian community and in
particular South Asian women?
in many ways those stereotypes still hold and we have to go back to Grunwick and
looked at what happened in that dispute to continuously challenge this
construction of South Asian women as passive as docile as confined to the
domestic sphere. And we really need to reclaim that account of their lives as
workers, and as workers who challenged exploitation at work. And won rights not
just for themselves but for all of us British workers.
picket line, and I must say that the BBC is part of that, of Strikers in Saris.
This surprise that how come women are doing something that we see as unexpected.
the tag Strikers in Saris was not unjustified.
disputes were South Asian women had been on strike before. It’s just that they
didn’t win the support of Trade Unions and fellow workers. So what was unusual
wasn’t that they were striking; what was unusual was that finally they were
being listened to by the broader Trade Union movement.
mean that the South Asian community in Britain is not particularly aware of its
own history when it comes to industrial relations and particularly to the
one of the Grunwick strikers and on the morning of the interview she was very
excited, she said my grandson is really excited it’s the day of my interview,
and I told him everything about the Grunwick dispute. And she said her grandson
turned to her and said You Grandma? I can’t believe you went on strike.
grandson had done a school project on Grunwick. And that’s when we thought that
this history is not even being celebrated by the very people who are at the
centre of it. And so, we felt there’s really a need to take the story out
further, and academic journal articles, books are not enough. and so, we
created a website with resources for schools and a comic.
histories, not just for minority communities but for majority communities as
well because this is part of our workers history. And you can find the
resources at http://striking-women.org/