On Friday 20th August 1976, during the hottest summer Britain experienced in over three decades, Devshi Bhudia was sacked for working too slowly. Later that evening Jayaben Desai was asked to work overtime, upon her refusal she was met with a formal warning. What ensued was a movement that would change British history and the perceptions of South Asian women around the country.
Jayaben Desai led a protest, of predominantly Asian women, on working conditions, pay inequality, respect for immigrant workers and institutionalised racism within the film processing factory Grunwick in North West London, Willesden. The two year protest not only united the Asian workforce during the 1970s but united them with an unlikely allie. The white working class population. Stereotypes of Asian women were also challenged. They were no longer seen as the docile and complying type. They were ‘strikers in saris’. They were radical activists.
On 14 December 2016 Jayaben Desai was named as one of seven women chosen by BBC Radio Four‘s Woman’s Hour for their 2016 Power List. And it’s easy to see why, when she walked out of the factor she is reported to have famously said;
‘What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager’.
In an era where Conservative politician Enoch Powell had polarised along racial lines and Margaret Thatcher was on the verge of power looking to crush workers’ rights, activism was alive and well throughout the 1970s. You only had to visit Brent’s neighbouring borough, Ealing, to find protests by the Punjabi community on racism in Southall. Stories of people like Jayaben Desai should never be forgotten.