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Jayaben Desai

(1933-2010), Leader of the strikers in the Grunwick dispute

Sitter in 1 portrait
Desai showed a concern for social justice at a young age, as a teenager she participated in demonstrations with the Indian movement for independence from British rule. Later, her family moved from Gujarat to Bombay where she enrolled on a sewing and tailoring course. In 1955 she married Suryakant Desai, the manager of a tyre factory in Tanzania. She emigrated to Dar-es-Salaam to join her husband in 1957. After the independence of Tanzania, and changing attitudes towards South Asians, they were forced to return to India where they stayed for 4 years before deciding to use their British passports to move to London in 1968. In India and Tanzania the couple and their two sons enjoyed a comfortable life and good social status, they did not enjoy the same in Britain. To help her husband financially, in 1974 she took a low-paid job with Grunwick, a mail-order film-processing factory in Willesden, North London. On 20 August 1976 after her line manager disrespectfully compared the workers of 'chattering like monkeys', on the basis that they were speaking in their mother-tongues, she defiantly replied '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!'. With these words she led a bold walkout with over 100 workers from the factory in dispute of bad working conditions and disrespect shown to immigrant workers by the company. The strikers joined the trade union, APEX and won a lot of support including from the Union of Post Office workers. The Grunwick dispute led to one of the largest mobilisations, over 20,000, of trade union members and ordinary workers in support of ethnic minority workers. Desai's actions made it a priority for trade unions to support the cause of migrant workers and contributed to a better level of understanding and respect given to immigrant workers from their white counterparts. Before she died in 2010 Desai reflected ‘I am proud of what I did. They wanted to break us down, but we did not break’. She is considered an activist, leader and heroine of British Trade Union history.

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