Struggles and Strategies of South Asian Women Workers
from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet
Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson
London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2018
Paperback. 232 p. ISBN 978-1912064861. £18
Reviewed by Pat Thane
King’s College London
Anitha and Pearson compare two strikes by South Asian women in London, at Grunwick photo-processing business in 1976 and at Gate Gourmet airline catering firm at Heathrow in 2005, as a means of examining the work experiences of South Asian women immigrants and their relationships with trade unions in the context of their wider life experiences.
The Grunwick strike was famous at the time and since as the first strike of South Asian women to come to public notice, for the support it aroused in the activist 1970s and for subsequent claims that it transformed the commitment of the British trade union movement towards women and immigrants. It probably did, from the previously insignificant level, but, as the book demonstrates, not dramatically. The Gate Gourmet strike took place in different times, when trade unions and activist movements were much weaker following the emergence of Thatcherite neo-liberalism, and it aroused less enthusiasm and publicity. It is examined here to demonstrate how little actually changed in the work experiences of South Asian women in the intervening 29 years, while trade unions had been dramatically weakened.
The strength and originality of the book lies in placing the strikes in the context of the strikers’ wider life experiences and including interviews with participants, so that it tells us much more than about industrial relations. It is especially valuable because there has been little research on female migrants to Britain, although Linda McDowell has recently done much to fill this gap.(1) As the book describes, the women who worked at Grunwick were mainly recent migrants from Uganda whose families had migrated to Africa from Asia, then were driven out by Idi Amin’s ‘Africanisation’ policy following Uganda’s independence from Britain. They came to Britain because, like everyone born anywhere in the British Empire from the seventeenth century to the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1971, they had full British Nationality Rights. Most had lived comfortable middle-class lives in Africa, were well-educated, many had worked as teachers or in other professional jobs or as wives and mothers and expected similar lives and social status in Britain. But they were allowed to take only limited possessions from Uganda and found, like most immigrants of colour, male and female, that the only work they could find in Britain was well below their educational and skill levels, low-paid manual or service work with low social status, which they were forced to accept because their families needed their income. Families struggled, as the book describes
The Grunwick photo-processing business in North-East London was owned and run by George Ward, mixed-race, half-Indian, but with no evident fellow-feeling or respect for Asian workers. The business expanded in the early 1970s and Ward sought Asian women workers because he believed they were docile, hard-working and would have little idea of their rights. Management was authoritarian, creating a culture of fear, with constant pressure to increase output under threat of dismissal. Compulsory, underpaid overtime was imposed at the last minute among other indignities, causing real problems for women with family responsibilities, as most had. But the women turned out to be less docile than expected, and a significant number walked out in August 1976 in protest at arbitrary and humiliating management, led by Jayaben Desai after she was ordered at the last minute to do overtime. Seeking support, they joined a union at a time when unions were reaching an historic peak of membership and activism. The union supported the strike and it became famous, attracting politicians and other public figures to the picket lines, along with the growing, lively feminist and anti-racist movements, and increasing opposition from antagonistic, right-wing and racist tendencies which were also growing. Other unions supported the strikers, including Post Office workers who refused to handle Grunwick post, important for the business since customers mailed their negatives for processing.
As left-wing social activism peaked internationally in the 1970s, a reaction emerged, also international, on the right, later described as neo-liberalism. The action of post office workers in obstructing the post was strictly illegal and Ward’s supporters, the right-wing National Association for Freedom (NAFF), threatened legal action against them, with a good chance of success. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) persuaded the postal workers to stop for fear of damaging court action. The strike dragged on through the following winter as, unusually among employers, Ward refused to negotiate or to make any concessions, and sacked the strikers. The police handled pickets aggressively and the strike, like other trade union actions at the time, faced sustained hostility from the increasingly assertive right-wing press. In the absence of another way out that was likely to succeed, the TUC referred the dispute to the official Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). Ward refused to co-operate, did everything possible to undermine the investigation, and refused to accept ACAS’s recommendation that he should recognise the union. The issue was taken to court, but the recommendation was rejected at all levels up to the highest court, the House of Lords.
The Labour government then also sought a solution. It had no majority in parliament, had lost a succession of by-elections, and felt insecure in the face of Conservative and media attacks on the exceptional strike activity of the period. This was impelled above all by exceptional inflation and the rising cost-of-living, rather than the threat to the political system the critics implied. The government established an enquiry chaired by a judge, Lord Scarman, which reported in August 1977, a year into the strike. It reported that the strikers had good reason for their grievances and recommended that they should be re-employed. Again, Ward refused to accept the findings and there was no means to enforce them against such unusual employer intransigence. With no resolution in sight, the strike continued, with flagging support, until, in desperation, Jayaben Desai and three colleagues went on hunger strike outside TUC headquarters, demanding action, though it was not obvious what the TUC, or anyone, could do to bring them justice. The strike continued until July 1978 when the women gave up, having achieved none of their aims.
The authors are highly critical of the unions and the Labour government for failing to sustain support for the strikers, but it is difficult to see what they could have done within the limitations of the law in the face of Ward’s total refusal to negotiate or to make any concession. Without a majority, the government was too weak to change the law. The authors give insufficient attention to Ward’s exceptional intransigence and the extreme right-wing views and support from growing right-wing business organisations which underpinned it. They were to grow ever more influential following the election of a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. The Grunwick strike encapsulated many of the conflicting changes in the much-debated history of 1970s Britain.
The Gate Gourmet strike demonstrated the outcome. Gate Gourmet originally belonged to British Airways, providing in-flight meals, until in 2002 it was sold to a US venture capital company, as BA sought to increase its profitability following privatisation by the Conservatives in 1987. Gate Gourmet staff were mainly older, South Asian women, first-generation immigrants, generally well-educated having grown up in quite comfortable, mainly Gujurati, families, who experienced similar disappointments to the Grunwick women on reaching Britain and now also struggled on low incomes. They were members of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) and generally content with their work until the change of ownership. By 2005 the ‘New Labour’ government of Tony Blair, elected 1997, had somewhat improved work conditions, adopting features of the EU ‘Social Chapter’ rejected by his Conservative predecessors. This included introducing a (low) minimum wage, equivalent rights for part-time and full-time workers including for sickness and holiday pay, improved maternity leave, prohibition of dismissal for reasons of pregnancy and maternity, as was all too common, and measures against discrimination at work on grounds including race, gender, age, disability. It did little to improve trade union rights which had been severely curtailed by the Thatcher governments.
But for workers at Gate Gourmet, following the takeover in 2002, conditions of work declined severely to a degrading situation similar to the experiences leading to the Grunwick strike. Under authoritarian management even the time workers spent in the toilets was monitored in a ‘regime of fear’. The union tried to negotiate moderation of the changes, without success against another intransigent management. The workers responded by ‘working to rule’, strictly limiting their work to their contractual hours and duties. Increasingly the firm, which was in financial difficulties, employed agency workers, often EU immigrants, who were not unionised, paid less and to whom they were not obliged to provide benefits. The strike came when workers found themselves suddenly replaced by agency workers. They were dismissed and locked-out. The union supported them and paid strike pay; other Heathrow workers struck in sympathy, including baggage handlers, grounding BA flights for two days. But sympathy strikes were illegal under a law of the Thatcher government in 1982. Thatcherite laws restricting trade union actions, combined with privatisation of highly unionised public services, the decline of manufacturing and high unemployment in the 1980s had severely reduced trade union membership as well as power. The TGWU negotiated a weak compromise agreement with Gate Gourmet which allowed the reinstatement of some workers on inferior pay and benefits and paid compensation to others, allowing the management to dismiss the most militant workers. Again, the authors are highly critical of the union, but there was little more they could do within the new laws without risking severe penalties. Some workers took their case to an industrial tribunal, the only remaining option, without success. The sacked workers struggled to find work, especially older women, often becoming low-paid care workers.
The Gate Gourmet experience showed that despite the persistent belief that the Grunwick strike inaugurated trade union support for ethnic minority and female workers, the unions could do no more to help them against intransigent employers in 2005 than in 1976. Whatever the intentions of the unions, their capacity to support the Gate Gourmet workers – or indeed any workers of any gender or ethnicity – was severely undermined by Thatcher’s war against the ‘enemy within’ , as she called the unions, the weakening of collective bargaining mechanisms and their severe decline in membership and power. These difficulties have increased under Conservative-led governments since 2010, forcing more workers, of all genders and ethnicities, into seriously exploitative working conditions and poverty while in full-time work.
This book brings to life exceptionally vividly the life histories of the striking women and the impact of the strikes upon their lives. The authors also describe well how the power and rights of trade unions contracted from 1979. Their greatest weakness is the failure to assess the influence of the growing ‘New Right’ on events at Grunwick and after. They are highly critical of what they perceive as trade union and Labour failures, sometimes rightly but not always assessing the legal and political constraints upon their actions, and rather too uncritical of their opponents. They are stronger on social than on political analysis. Despite its weaknesses this is a valuable book conveying new insights into recent British history.
(1) McDowell, Linda. Working Lives : Gender, Migration and Employment in Britain, 1945-2007. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013; Migrant Women’s Voices : Talking About Life and Work in the UK since 1945. Wiley-Blackwell, 2016.
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