“They wanted to break us, but we are unbreakable .”
An immigrant to London from India, Mrs Desai (as she liked to be called) was a forced to be reckoned with. Born in Gujarat, she was passionate even at an early age, even campaigning for Indian independence before she then moved to Tanzania as an adult. However when Tanzania gained its independence, new governments adopted policies that discriminated against migrants. They were entitled to a settlement in the UK, therefore like many others, Mrs Desai made the trip to England.
Things however were not much better in England. Often desperate for work, Asian migrants (especially women) were often exploited to low paid jobs, in more often that not, non satisfactory working conditions. Such was the case for Mrs Desai that settled in North London and worked at a processing plant in Willesden. Especially in the summer, they often worked long hours in hot conditions without many breaks.
On an unbearable hot day in July 1976, Mrs Desai made a decision that changed things forever. Leading a walk out, the 4 ft 10 woman marched up to 6ft boss and announced her plans. Known for her effervescent way with words she declared:
“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 can dance on your fingertips, others are lions that can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager.”
Recalling her thoughts later in a magazine she said “It was amazing […] tears were in my eyes to see this people.” Immediately afterwards, she and her fellow workers joined the union APEX. Apart from the incredible Dagenham workers in 1963, trade unions had a long history of being predominantly white and male, but Mrs Desai soon made her mark.
Campaigning further at the Grunswick plant, they even gained the support of local postmen. Blocking post to the plant, the fourteen postmen were facing serious ramifications that even included the threat of their dismissal. Nevertheless they did not give up as one of them remarked “You do not say no to Mrs Desai.”
The movement quickly gained momentum, gaining press attention as support for the group became larger and larger. The picket lasted until 1978 and throughout demonstrations, backlash, and even arrests- they persisted. They became known as the ‘Strikers In Sarees.’
It was no easy fight however. The boss of the factory (George Ward) would not accept nor recognise the rights of these workers, he even was supported by Margaret Thatcher. James Callaghan (the Prime Minister at the time) set up a cabinet committee and persuaded the TUC and the Apex to allow a court of enquiry. The odds were not in their favour, however.
Ward refused to back down and although the strikers had definitely had support, it was fleeting. Having faced another cold and bitter picket, the union grew more tired. Therefore without not much other choice, the workers submitted their defeat on the 14th July 1978.
At their last meeting however she declared “We have shown that workers like us, new to the shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect.” Mrs Desai went on to celebrate her culture by teaching Asian dressmaking, and was an active part of the conversation in rights for women and migrant workers, up until her death in 2010.
A striking example of how one brave (but seemingly powerless voice) defied an entire establishment, Mrs Desai was constantly defying stereotypes. South Asian women (and indeed migrant) were stereotyped as being docile, unintelligent and subservient. With an entire system of institutional racism and sexism standing against them, this is something that Mrs Desai took in her stride.
Perhaps an example that we could all take from Mrs Desai is her fiery determination to fight seemingly impossible odds. Almost forty years later, the legacy of the ‘Strikers in Sarees’ still live on, raising serious questions about the rights of ethnic minorities and women being described as ‘formidable’ and even as a ‘lioness’. Even though Mrs Desai did not win this particular fight, it was a momentous victory.
And although undoubtedly there is still work to be done, but perhaps above all what Mrs Desai teaches us is the power and potential we all harbour if we only raise our voice.