Was known for her defiance of stereotyping of south Asian women as subservient 7th January 2011: Jayaben Desai is no more. A prominent leader of the strikers in the Grunwick dispute in London in 1976, 77-year-old Desai breathed her last on 23rd December 2010.
She resigned after being ordered to work overtime, and instigated a strike among the mainly Asian and female workforce. The strikers protested about working conditions, pay inequality and institutionalised racism within the company.
Desai led the strikers in their epic two-year picket from 1976 to 1978. She had a colourful way with words, for example her parting shot to the boss when she led the walkout: "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."
Mrs Desai, as she was always referred to, recorded her thoughts for the Brent Museum archives. In an interview by Hannah Phung of Brent Museum she said: "It was amazing, let me tell you, it was amazing.[…] tears were in my eyes to see these people […] they were hurting themselves and the police were charging them with horses and everything and still they were standing strong."
She was considered remarkable for her defiance of the stereotyping of south Asian women as subservient
According to Institute of Race Relations News Team, Jenny Bourne, when reviewing a DVD on the struggle at the factory, wrote: ‘There was another powerful political lady with a handbag other than Thatcher in the 1970s.
‘A tiny woman, usually swathed in a bulky cardigan, almost always seen with a megaphone. An Asian lady in a sari, a bindi always on her forehead, with a gentle voice and large, reproachful eyes. This was Jayaben Desai, leader of the strikers at the Grunwick film-processing factory in North London.’
In March last year young filmmakers from west London interviewed Jayaben for Hidden Herstories which documented the impact on society made by four women.