​​​​​​​Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson on “Striking Women: Struggles and Strategies of South Asian Women Workers from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet” (Part 2)

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Image Credit: Sacked Gate Gourmet workers, May Day rally, London, 2008 © Sundari Anitha

In Part 2 of this feature essay, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson introduce their new book, Striking Women: Struggles and Strategies of South Asian Women Workers from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet, which focuses on two industrial disputes in the UK: the famous Grunwick strike (1976-78) and the Gate Gourmet dispute of 2005. The book gives a voice to the women involved in the strikes and explores South Asian women’s contribution to the struggles for worker’s rights in Britain.

If you are interested in this book, you may also want to visit the interactive website www.striking-women.org, created by the authors for schools and community groups and offering resources on migration, women’s and labour rights based on research on South Asian women in the UK.

Striking Women: Struggles and Strategies of South Asian Women Workers from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet. Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson. Lawrence and Wishart. 2018.

The events of the Grunwick strike have been extensively analysed both by contemporary journalist and trade unions, as well as by historians and political scientists. In contrast to other accounts, however, our book does not stop at the end of the strike. Instead, it takes as its endpoint a second dispute involving migrant South Asian women workers some 30 years later at Gate Gourmet. Striking Women includes the first account of this struggle, based on the voices of the women involved. Drawing on life/work history interviews with 32 women who participated in the two disputes, as well as interviews with trade union officials, archival material and employment tribunal proceedings, we explore the motivations, experiences and implications of these events for strikers’ political and social identities.

This was the Gate Gourmet dispute that erupted in 2005, involving primarily Indian migrant workers who were employed in the preparation of in-flight food. In contrast to the twice-migrant Grunwick workers from East Africa, the Gate Gourmet women were direct migrants from the Punjab, who came from non-English-speaking land-owning peasant families. Most of them had migrated to London as young women, either as daughters, fiancées or wives, and unlike the Grunwick strikers, they were members of a trade union (the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU)) and had decades of working experience in the London labour market, mainly as low-paid unskilled workers.

After Gate Gourmet obtained the contract for the production of in-flight meals following the outsourcing by British Airways in 1997, these workers experienced a continuing deterioration in their conditions at work, which they resisted with, and sometimes without, the support of their trade unions. In July 2005, in response to the imposition of non-unionised East European workers on their production line, the Asian women workers walked out to discuss the appropriate course of action with their union representatives. Acting on the advice of their shop stewards, they refused the management’s ultimatum that they return to work and were effectively sacked by megaphone.

Initially, other workers were supportive, and the TGWU brought the baggage handlers out in solidarity. But, as we detail in Striking Women, the world had changed since the 1970s.  Secondary picketing had been outlawed, and worker’s grievances were mainly taken to a series of industrial and employment tribunals to be resolved. The secondary action was quickly called off as the union negotiated a Compromise Agreement with the employers, which saw the majority of the workers being reinstated under less beneficial terms and conditions, with a hand-picked number offered compulsory redundancy. These were generally older women or those who had needed to take sick or family leave in more recent years. When some 60 of them refused to accept the terms of the Compromise Agreement and established a protest demonstration on the nearby hill, trade union support ebbed away. A number of the sacked workers took their case to an employment tribunal, but the only workers who won their cases were the union shop stewards – the remaining workers were literally left out in the cold.

Many of these workers felt personally let down by their trade unions, and their experience of the lack of union support contrasts with the widespread support for the Grunwick strikers some 30 years earlier. The way in which the trade unions closed ranks and abandoned the women who refused to accept the compulsory redundancy spelt out in the Compromise Agreement was bitterly resented. Although the 2006 TUC Congress passed a unanimous resolution which expressed their ‘profound anger at the shameful treatment of those workers’ and called on members and affiliates to seek national and international support, asserting ‘their fight is our fight’ and promising to do their best to help these women workers, this was not what happened. Instead, they were abandoned by the union and lost their tribunal case on the grounds that they were taking unofficial strike action at the time of their dismissal. In contrast, the TGWU made a £600,000 settlement with the two shop stewards who were responsible for the ‘illegal’ secondary action by baggage handlers at Heathrow airport. In the end, the trade union movement walked away from these women, and they are not included in the list of honourable struggles for justice for minority and women workers in the UK.

The focus on these events throws light on the complex but continuing nature of South Asian women’s contribution to the struggles for workers’ rights in the UK. By examining the histories of migration and settlement of these two different groups of women of South Asian origin, we reveal how this history, their gendered, classed and racialised inclusion in the labour market, the context of industrial relations in the UK in the two periods and the nature of the trade union movement shaped the trajectories and outcomes of the two disputes.

The strikes also serve as a prism for examining particular continuities and changes in industrial relations, trade union practices and their scope for action. This book challenges stereotypes of South Asian women as passive and confined to the private sphere, whilst exploring the ways in which their employment experience interacted with their domestic roles. Paying close attention to the events and contexts of their workplace struggles enables us to understand the centrality of work to their identities, the complex relationships between these women and their trade unions and some of the challenges that confront trade unions in their efforts to address issues posed by gender and ethnicity. This is the workers’ story, not just the union’s story.

This is Part 2 of the two-part feature essay introducing the book. The first part can be accessed in the archives of this blog. This article was first published on LSE Review of Books and is republished here with permission, the original can be accessed here.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About The Authors

Sundari Anitha is Reader at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln. She has researched and written on two areas of labour market experiences of South Asian women in the UK, and on violence against women and girls in the UK and India. Her publications include Gender Based Violence in University Communities (Policy Press, forthcoming 2018); Disposable Women (University of Lincoln, 2016); and Forced Marriage(Zed Books, 2011). She has been also active in campaigns and policy-making to address violence against women since 1999 and is a trustee of several UK-based charities.

Ruth Pearson is Emeritus Professor at the University of Leeds and a feminist economist who has researched and written about women’s work in the global economy since the 1970s, focusing in recent years on migrant workers and gendered globalisation. She is the co-author, with Diane Elson, of the classical article on women workers in export production: ‘Nimble Fingers make Cheap Workers’ (Feminist Review, 1981). More recent books include Thailand’s Hidden Workforce (Zed Books, 2012) and Globalization, Export-Orientated Employment and Social Policy (Routledge 1998). She has also been an activist in a range of women’s organisations and has acted as a consultant and/or academic advisor for a number of international organisations including UNDP, Oxfam, Action Aid and DFID.

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