Jayaben Desai was a prominent leader of the strikers in the Grunwick dispute in London in 1976. Let us learn more about her on the occasion of her birthday.
Jayaben Desai was born on 2 April 1933 in Dharmaj, Gujarat, India. She moved to Tanzania, East Africa, in 1956. At the age of twenty-two, she married Suryakant, a factory owner. The couple were from middle-class mercantile backgrounds. They later moved to Britain.
In Britain, she had to take up low-paid work, first as a sewing machinist, then processing film in the Grunwick factory. 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 institutionalized racism within the company. Women were even asked why they needed to go to the toilet, and Jayaben Desai advised her colleagues not to be intimidated by this.
Jayaben led the strikers in their epic two-year picket from 1976 to 1978. Desai was an inspiring speaker and well-known speaker, speaking out against racist and sexist comments aimed at her and at the other striking workers, and criticizing what she felt was a lack of support from the Trades Union Congress for her cause.
The strike was over on 14 July 1978. Desai returned to the sewing industry and later became a teacher at Harrow College. She passed her driving test at the age of 60 and encouraged other women to do so to increase their freedom.
Jayaben Desai passed away on 23 December 2010. On 14 December 2016, she was named as one of seven women chosen by BBC Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour for their 2016 Power List.