RIP Jayaben Desai, feminist role model and union leader
Jayaben Desai, a pioneer of Asian women workers’ movement in Britain, died after a brief illness. She was 77. She is survived by her husband and two sons.
The diminutive India-born Ms. Desai, who moved to Britain from Tanzania in 1969, came to be known as a “lioness” for her role in leading the two-year long strike at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories, north London, in the 1970s to demand union recognition for its largely Asian and female workforce.
She famously told a manager : “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 on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.’’
Recalling her memorable taunt, Labour MP and Jack Dromey, a former trade union leader who worked with her during the Grunwick dispute said: "She was 4ft 11 tall, but an absolute lioness.”
The Grunwick strike (1976-78), regarded as a seminal moment in British trade union movement, was sparked by the dismissal of Devshi Bhudia, a male worker, for working “too slowly’’. Ms Desai who walked out in support along with other workers, including her son, was dismissed . Most of the workers at the factory were women, mostly Indian, and as they took to the streets led by Ms Desai with her trademark handbag they were fondly dubbed the “strikers in saris’’. Although workers failed to achieve their demand, the strike helped highlight the oppression of migrant women workers.
In what The Guardian said was her last known public statement, Ms Desai told the newspaper: "I am proud of what I did. They wanted to break us down, but we did not break.”
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