Jayaben Desai by David Mansell, for Report Archive

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    Jayaben Desai,    by David Mansell, for  Report Archive,    23 October 1977,    NPG x200056,    © David Mansell / reportdigital.co.uk
Jayaben Desai, activist and leader of the strikers in the Grunwick dispute.
Jayaben Desai
by David Mansell, for Report Archive
modern bromide print, 23 October 1977
14 5/8 in. x 10 1/4 in. (370 mm x 260 mm) image size
NPG x200056
© David Mansell / reportdigital.co.uk

Jayaben Desai (1933–2010) is best known for leading a Strike To refuse to work in order to improve pay or conditions. at the Grunwick factory in northwest London, in the 1970s. The majority of the workers at the factory, including Desai, were South Asian women who had migrated to East Africa before eventually migrating to Britain. Along with over 100 of her co-workers, Desai went on strike to protest against the appalling pay and treatment they had to endure at the factory.

Desai helped gather huge support for the strike from thousands of workers and trade unions across Britain. The strike also attracted a lot of attention from the media. Some newspapers were sympathetic towards Desai and her co-workers. But the media generally presented the Strike To refuse to work in order to improve pay or conditions. as small, weak and ‘non-British’, reinforcing the stereotype of South Asian women at the time, and undermining their identity as members of the British workforce.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Jayaben Desai,    by David Mansell, for  Report Archive,    23 October 1977,    NPG x200056,    © David Mansell / reportdigital.co.uk
Jayaben Desai, by David Mansell, for Report Archive, 23 October 1977

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • Jayaben Desai, leader of the Grunwick Strike To refuse to work in order to improve pay or conditions. .
    • A line of male police officers.
    • Desai is Picket A person or group of people who stand outside the entrance to a building in order to protest about something, especially in order to stop people from entering a workplace during a strike. (protesting outside a workplace) near the Grunwick factory, in northwest London.
    • The Grunwick factory employed many migrant women like Desai, and exploited these workers. This included paying low wages for long hours, as well as humiliating and intimidating them.
    • All the police officers are standing in the same way, close together in a line with their legs apart and arms folded. They would have been trained to do this when policing a Picket A person or group of people who stand outside the entrance to a building in order to protest about something, especially in order to stop people from entering a workplace during a strike. line.
    • Some are looking directly at Desai or meeting her gaze. Others are looking straight ahead.
    • The expressions on the faces of the police officers are mixed. Some are smiling, others are expressionless. Some of them appear Patronising Showing that you think you are better or more intelligent than somebody else. towards Desai – as if she couldn’t possibly win the struggle. Perhaps they feel sorry for her.
    • She has her arms firmly folded. This mirrors the pose of the police officers.
    • She is looking directly at one of the police officers, who is looking straight back at her, meeting her gaze.
    • Her mouth is slightly open – perhaps she is saying something to him.
    • She appears determined and not at all intimidated by the police officers.
    • The badges read ‘support the Grunwick Strike To refuse to work in order to improve pay or conditions. ’.
    • The armband reads ‘APEX Picket A person or group of people who stand outside the entrance to a building in order to protest about something, especially in order to stop people from entering a workplace during a strike. ’. The strikers were members of the APEX union who supported them in their struggle for better pay and conditions.
    • The badges and the armband are both right at the front of the photograph, clearly showing us why Desai is there.
    • The photograph was taken at eye level with Desai’s head and powerfully shows the difference in height between her and the line of police officers, who appear relatively tall and strong. Newspapers often referred to Desai as being ‘tiny’.
    • It looks as though she is alone, when in fact she would have been joined by hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of other workers from across the country.
    • Police officers are usually present on Picket A person or group of people who stand outside the entrance to a building in order to protest about something, especially in order to stop people from entering a workplace during a strike. lines to stop the protests from getting out of hand and to make sure non-striking workers can enter the building.
    • As the Strike To refuse to work in order to improve pay or conditions. gathered more support from trade unions across the country, the police became more aggressive towards the Strike To refuse to work in order to improve pay or conditions. and their supporters.
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 that dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager.
Jayaben Desai, 1976.

Who was Jayaben Desai?

  • Jayaben Desai was born in India. As a young woman, she migrated to East Africa, before eventually migrating to Britain, in 1967.
  • Desai started work at the Grunwick factory in northwest London in 1974. Here she worked alongside many others who were newly-arrived migrants – almost of them South Asian women from East Africa, like her.
  • The Grunwick factory exploited these workers. This included paying low wages for long hours, as well as humiliating and intimidating them.
  • The workers were also not allowed to join a Trade union An organisation of workers, usually in a particular industry, that exists to protect their interests, improve conditions of work, etc. . This meant they had no-one to help make sure they had reasonable pay and working conditions.
  • In 1976, Desai went on Strike To refuse to work in order to improve pay or conditions. in protest. Over 100 workers followed her.
  • Desai gathered the support of unions from across Britain. Workers went on marches in support of the strike, and joined the Picket A person or group of people who stand outside the entrance to a building in order to protest about something, especially in order to stop people from entering a workplace during a strike. line outside the Grunwick factory. Before this, female, Black and Asian workers had not been well supported by the unions, which were all led by white men.
  • The Government report on the strike also supported the rights of the Grunwick Strike To refuse to work in order to improve pay or conditions. .
  • The Grunwick management refused to give in. In 1978, the strike was finally called off, almost two years after it began.
  • Although Desai and the strikers were not given their jobs back, conditions did eventually improve for workers at Grunwick. The strike also succeeded in challenging negative stereotypes of South Asian women, showing their strength and determination. It brought together workers from all backgrounds to defend the rights of migrant women workers.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This is a ‘press’ photograph, taken by a photographer working for a newspaper. It would have been seen by thousands of people across Britain.
  • The photograph was taken more than a year after Desai and her co-workers had started Picket A person or group of people who stand outside the entrance to a building in order to protest about something, especially in order to stop people from entering a workplace during a strike. the Grunwick factory. This could show that the story was still ‘newsworthy’. At this time, the campaign was at its height, with support from trade unions and workers from across the country.
  • This portrait is an example of how Desai was represented in the media. Some newspapers were sympathetic towards Desai and her co-workers. Others reinforced the stereotype of South Asian women at the time as weak and ‘non-British’, undermining their identity as members of the British workforce.

Questions

  1. What do you think the overall message of this photograph is? Why?
  1. Do you think this photograph could be seen as sympathetic to Desai and her co-workers? How?