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Lion’s heart wrapt in Sari – on Jayaben Desai

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The Unlikely Fighter: Jayaben Desai

It was one sweltering summer day of 1976 when 43-year old Jayaben Desai finally culminated over the demeaning mistreatment and delivered her tirade against her manager of the Grunswick Film Processing Laboratories in London and stormed out of his glass office that sealed her outcry of frustration and indignation that had been smothered under the daily duties of existential needs for livelihood for years. So when her manager told her to work overtime at the very last minute as usual, again and again, Desai couldn’t take it any longer. For Desai’s personal life and her right to freedom after work meant nothing to the management whose discriminating attitudes toward their southwestern Asian immigrant workers were beyond pale. No More Docile Asian Woman who, unlike her English counterparts, would acquiesce to her despotic manager’s orders. This time Desai transformed herself into a lioness unafraid of the goading. This time was hers, and hers and her fellow immigrant workers. 

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A Lion’s Heart wrapt in sari

Upon reading the article “We are the lions, Mr. Manager” in my subscribed BBC history magazine, which was about the famous Grunswick Strike in 1977 led by then-unknown former Grunswick employee, Jayaben Desai, I could not help but take pen to paper for the following reasons: (1) it was about the first remarkable calling for a solidarity for the rights of workers on the periphery of social recognition;(2) it was the first and foremost Asian women’s strike against the industrial injustice backed up by the establishments, including that which they claimed to be for the people and by the people; and (3) it manifested the deep-seated general British public’s sentiment towards their Asian immigrant neighbors who were regarded as socially and culturally inferior to theirs based on race and culture. 

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Despite Desai and her collaborators, mobilized support from politicians and trade unions was conspicuous by its absence.

What really made me incendiary about the one woman’s protest against the exploitation of the race and gender for dignity and justice was the absence of massive support from her fellow English workers. She was reminiscent of a lone frontier woman in a duel against her heartless landowner with hoots and holler from his ilk. Although supports from people with goodwill and conscience were impossible to ignore, a majority of established social organizations did not lend helping hands to Ms. Desai and her fellow hardscrabble workers sending a distressed SOS call to their English peers. Where were their so-called English contemporary counterparts who were also economically disadvantaged and socially oppressed? Was the outcry of their fellow immigrant workers only a barbarous shouting trying to threaten their jobs? 

Although Ms. Desai’s heroic legacy has left an indelible footprint in the world’s social history encompassing racialized minority workers on social radar, labor disputes concerning the exploitation of race and gender are still rampant. What’s more, it still happens in our digitalized social media-governed age all over the world, including here in the States. How to stop or ameliorate the social ill shouldn’t be treated as a stylish, popular subject to gain constituents for political party ideology. Until then, the exploited will remain invisible in the dark and dank corners of the society willfully ignored and utterly abandoned.