We Are Those Lions

Photo by simonm1965

Jayaben Desai passed away recently at age 77, leaving an extraordinary legacy in labor history. With a handbag in one hand and a bullhorn in the other, she led a two-year strike in the mid-1970s protesting the unequal pay and poor treatment of workers at a North London Grunwick film processing factory. The factory’s workforce consisted mostly of desi immigrants from East Africa, and many were women.

Before she walked off the job one day in 1976, the diminutive Gujarat-born Desai who came in at under 5 feet tall and immigrated to England by way of Tanzania, had a few words for her manager Malcolm Alden.

What you are running here 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 finger-tips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr manager.Desai was fed up with the conditions at the factory owned by Anglo Indian businessman George Ward, praised by Margaret Thatcher as a “champion of freedom” but called George Amin by protesters who quoted him on their pickets–“I can buy a Patel for £15.” Overtime was required and a week’s pay was as little as £28/40 hours when the national average was £72 and for women in London, £44. Her efforts on behalf of the workers led to widespread union support including from miners and postal workers groups–the latter stopped deliveries to the factory for a time.

This kind of support was unheard of before in Britain for a labor dispute in which most strikers were an ethnic minority. So even if the 1976-1978 Grunwick strike did not get strikers their jobs back or the factory to recognize unions, Desai’s leadership had broad impact. She helped to transform the way unions and workers viewed immigrant women colleagues. After the strike started the factory raised wages too, and today its employees get pensions.


Years before people were watching inspirational films like Norma Rae or Made in Dagenham about women in the labor movement, they were watching a confident and assertive Desai on TV news coverage of the strike, shattering stereotypes of South Asian women workers as silent or docile.

Photos of the Grunwick dispute by Homer Sykes show what the strike was like, including the police and political opposition Desai faced. Getty Images has a Grunwick archive too.


There’s a fair amount of information online about the Grunwick strike and Jayaben Desai for those interested. For starters: Wikipedia’s Grunwick dispute and the website for the exhibit Striking Women: Voices of South Asian women workers from Grunwick and Gate Gourmet, which includes documents like pay logs and news clippings from the time.

Related: Abhi blogged about a more recent British strike (Gourmet Gate, 2005) led by South Asian women in A sea of brown closes Heathrow down. Desai supported the strikers.

11 thoughts on “We Are Those Lions

  1. shattering stereotypes of South Asian women workers as silent or docile.

    The level of DV (much of it tolerated) in the South Asian community sadly makes me question whether this stereotype isn’t warranted, in spite of exemplars like J. Desai.

  2. Hello,

    I see you are using my photographs of Grunwick and have given me a credit. Can you make contact with me please. Many thanks.

    Homer Sykes

  3. ”shattering stereotypes of South Asian women workers as silent or docile.”

    ”The level of DV (much of it tolerated) in the South Asian community sadly makes me question whether this stereotype isn’t warranted, in spite of exemplars like J. Desai.”

    SEEMA, ARE YOU SAYING that South Asian women are lions on the street but lambs in the home?

  4. Great woman, immigrant trade union leaders are always interesting.

    On an unrelated note, if there was nothing seen on the page instead of “Anonymous comment”, would be better going through a comments thread is tedious and annoying having to constantly see that message, it’s putting me off Sepia. Can deleted comments just be deleted without that message showing up?

  5. Thanks for sharing, Pavani. I’d never heard about her before. What a gal. Inspiring.

  6. I vividly recall the Grunwick strike. It was a great morale booster for East African Asians- especially Ugandan refugees- settled in North London. The special importance of Smt. Jayabehn Desai arises from the manner in which the Grunwick strike militated against the notion that Labor could be split on ‘coloured immigration’ as had previously been believed. The salient point was that ‘coloured women’- that too wearing saris- were shown to have agency and commitment to the principle of no undercutting of wage rates- i.e. these ‘blacks’ would never accept to be ‘blacklegs’. The support given by the muscular ‘labor aristocracy’ (miners, steel-workers etc) to the mainly female and East African Asian Grunwick workers was unprecedented and on a truly epic scale. My memory is that Shirley Temple, a Labour moderate, had originally got involved to try to get the ‘secondary picketers’ (i.e. workers from other Unions or parts of the country) to go home- however, she herself became radicalized (briefly!) after seeing things for herself. However, historically the tide had already turned against Jayabehn. ‘Secondary picketing’ would be outlawed by the incoming Thatcher Govt. Interestingly, though Thatcher initially appeared to be cashing in anti-immigrant sentiment through her perceived closeness to Enoch Powell (a rabid anti-immigration politician- who had once dreamed of being Viceroy of India and who told R.A.Butler that he was prepared to re-conquer India!), she made it a point to reach out to Asians, especially East African Asians by praising their entrepreneurial skills. The result was that the Asians tended to get co-opted and no longer saw Unionism as presenting a bulwark against the Far Right. Interestingly, Unionism was never on the cards for the sweat shop workers of East London- whose wages were lower than that of the Grunwick women. Indeed, purely from the monetary point of view, the job wasn’t a bad alternative- especially for more conservative ladies or younger married women- and some women did want to keep working and have nothing to do with the strike. Still, on balance, in the widest possible sense, Jayabehn did more good than harm. That is her uniqueness.

  7. Maintaining and expanding labor rights is critical to all of our lives. Go Jaiben! I won’t forget you and I will pledge to throw the power of my life behind labor!