(1933-2010) – Trade Unionist
Born in Gujarat in 1933, Jayaben moved with her husband to East Africa in the 1950s and then to the UK, where their middle-class lifestyle ended as they could only find work in factories. Grunwick, a film processing plant, was where she led a walkout of non-unionised workers in August 1976 due to the long hours and poor wages. Most were also immigrants and most were women. After a long battle, the strikers conceded defeat nearly two years later in July 1978. Nonetheless, Jayaben was at the head of a movement which mobilised the biggest number of in labour movement history to support just 200 workers. She also changed the way many people saw black and brown workers.
I first heard of Jayaben Desai when I was reading an old copy of the radical Race Today journal from 1987, and was so surprised to hear about a woman of Indian heritage who had led a strike in the UK in the 1970s! The stereotype of older Indian women at that time was quiet, unobtrusive types, but here was someone who stepped out of that role to fight for workers’ rights.
Photograph Graham Wood/Getty Images