In 1976, a group of Indian women, who had been employed as low-paid labour in the Grunwick film processing factory, went on strike in protest against their poor working conditions. Their story, and that of their formidable leader Jayaben Desai, is depicted in a new play running now at Tara Arts.
The play’s title We are the Lions, Mr Manager! refers to the moment when, in August 1976, Jayaben, walked out of the factory in support of a fellow worker, and a manager called the women ‘chattering monkeys’. She 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.”
In defiance of the notion that Indian women migrants from East Africa were ‘hard-working and docile’ (and thus accepting of low pay and degrading treatment, and thus highly employable), the workers picketed the factory for months. Jayaben travelled the country mobilising unions and their workers to join the strike, and thousands did. At one point in June 1977, 20,000 protestors joined the strikers in the streets outside the factory. Three government ministers joined the strike. There were various instances of violence, as protestors clashed with police.
Still the Grunwick management refused to negotiate, and the two major trade unions involved eventually withdrew their support from the protest. Jayaben and three other Grunwick workers went on hunger strike, but despite two years of further struggle, were ultimately unable to have the strikers – who had been dismissed – reinstated.
What they were able to do was confront stereotypes about immigrant women, and demonstrate their power in standing up for labour exploitation and racism through fearlessness, solidarity and collective action. Jayaben was recently named in Radio 4’s Women’s Hour Power list as one of the women who have had the biggest impact on women’s lives over the past 70 years.
Read the story of the strike in more detail, and see some amazing photos, here. Details for the play are just below.
When: Tuesday 21 – Saturday 25 November 2017, 7.30pm. Thursday 23 November, 2pm
Where: Tara Arts, 356 Garratt Lane, London SW18 4ES
More info: Tara Arts
By Seema Khan.
Posted on 22 November 2017
Photo courtesy Townsend Theatre Productions