'Strikers in saris' remembered in powerful play of workers rights
PUBLISHED: 16:32 02 March 2018
© Paul Sandy 2017
In 1976 a group of Indian women workers in a film processing factory went on strike in one of the most important industrial disputes in UK history. Now the story and their inspirational leader Jayaben Desai is told in new play.
On the 20 August 1976 a group of workers in a film processing factory in Willesden walked out in protest at their unfair working conditions, low pay and the ‘bullying tactics’ used by management.
Led by mostly East African Asian women, the Grunwick strike became one of the longest and most important industrial disputes in British history, and changed the way trade unions thought about race and new immigrant communities coming to Britain in the 1970s.
The women became known as the “strikers in saris” and their fight for fair treatment was supported by thousands of trade unionists and campaigners as more than 20,000 people joined them at the picket lines on one of the mass pickets.
But the story of the Grunwick dispute more than just a story about ground-breaking solidarity. It is also the story of a remarkable woman, Jayaben Desai.
The 4ft 10in mother-of-two defiantly led the first walk-out in protest against the humiliation she and other women employees felt at the Grunwick factory.
As she left, the manager shouted at Jayaben and her colleagues to “stop chattering like monkeys in a zoo”, and Jayaben replied: “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 fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager!”
Now her retort is the title of a new play coming to the region. We Are The Lions, Mr. Manager! is being staged by Townsend Theatre Productions, whose previous productions have included The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and United We Stand, about another industrial dispute involving building workers.
Written by Neil Gore, the play tells the story of the Grunwick dispute through a mixture of stirring song, poetry, movement and dance.
“In our work we aim to focus on the lives and contributions of inspirational and vital figures from our social history, often forgotten, who campaigned vigorously to improve the quality of life for everyone. Jayaben Desai is one such figure,” said Neil Gore.
“She tirelessly fought on behalf of immigrant workers against exploitative employment practice; fearlessly faced all the elements of establishment authority; alerted many in the trade union movement to the issues of vulnerability of immigrant workers; and highlighted the fight to maintain basic trade union rights.
“Her resolve and courage should be remembered and celebrated. Also, Grunwick raised many wide-ranging questions about trade unionism, rights in the workplace and dignity at work - themes that still resonate and are relevant today.”
The play utilises Townsend Production’s trademark cast of two actors playing multiple roles, however this one is extra special as the role of Jayaben Desai is being played by Medhavi Patel, who is a distant relative of the inspirational leader.
“I didn’t know Jayaben directly but my family knew her, and a member of our family married Jayaben’s son. But despite the family connection I didn’t actually know about the Grunwick Strike when I was growing up,” explains the actress who has starred in TV shows Doctors and Holby City as well as stage plays like Tales of Birbal, Trident Moon and Fragile Land.
“I couldn’t believe that nobody had told me about this powerful woman who is a part of our distant family circle.
Describing herself as incredibly excited and proud to be an actor from a Gujarati background playing Jayaben Desai, she adds: “My parents moved to the UK in 1979 and my mum worked in a couple of factories when they first came here, so Jayaben’s story is one that resonates with me on a personal level. I remember there wasn’t much security in my mum’s factory jobs. She once worked in laundrette factory and I remember her coming home and vomiting and having headaches because of the fumes and the chemicals. My mum is very proud to see me bringing this story to life.”
Though best known leading the Grunwick Strike, Jayaben’s legacy goes beyond that, she turned the dispute into a national movement for human rights, inspiring future generations and challenging the way people perceived Asian women.
She was recently amongst the women who have had the biggest impact on women’s lives over the past 70 years as part of the Radio 4 Women’s Hour Power List.
This recognition comes decades after her role in the dispute something that for cultural reasons was not as well known in the Indian community.
“One thing that I have noticed, as much as I love my culture and my tradition, is that Indian families don’t always pass down these amazing stories,” said Medhavi. “We’ve have all the stories about Gandhi and about powerful men, but what about the women who played a part in modern culture? We don’t explore and celebrate them enough. I guess it must have been sensitive, even for Jayaben.
“As strong as a character that she was, often at that time women weren’t loud, they would just get on with it. We were known to just do our job and that’s it. The men were the breadwinners and they were the ones that fought for the family, so to have this woman who started this strike, it must have shaken everyone.
“It’s something to be proud of but also it was probably quite difficult for her to exist within her community at the time, because no doubt there were probably people who were telling her that it wasn’t a good idea, but Jayaben was ahead of her time and was determined to achieve justice.
“I don’t know why these stories aren’t passed down but I feel that they should be, so I am honoured to be retelling Jayaben’s story on stage”
• We Are The Lions, Mr Manager! is at Diss Corn Hall on March 6, 7.30pm, £10 (£9 cons), 01379 652241, disscornhall.co.uk
• It is also at Norwich Arts Centre on March 7, 8pm, £13.50 (£11.50 cons), 01603 660352, norwichartscentre.co.uk
• It will also be at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, on April 10.
• Full details at townsendproductions.org.uk