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In March 2018, Awaaz carried an article by Ramnik Shah titled “Jayaben Desai: A Legend”. I don’t know how many people in East Africa and beyond read this excellent homage to Jayaben.  I take the occasion of the celebration of the May Day this year to write a small piece to remember the struggle of the migrant workers – mostly Asian women from East Africa – in a small factory in England, a struggle that eventually encompassed the whole country. I try, also, to learn from that experience to reflect on the situation with the struggle of the working classes in East Africa today.

The play in Oxford celebrating Jayaben Desai

On 3-4 April 2018, a theatre in Oxford, United Kingdom ran a play on the theme “We are the Lions, Mr. Manager” which I went to see.  It had a cast of only two. The role of Jayaben was played by Medhavi Patel with whom I talked at the end of this very inspirational play. She said she was a distant relative of Jayaben’s whom she holds as a role model.

In a pamphlet distributed at the theatre, Neil Gore (the play writer) said: “In our work we aim to focus on the lives and contributions of inspirational and vital figures from our social history, often forgotten, who campaigned vigorously to improve the quality of life for everyone. Jayaben Desai is one such figure. She tirelessly fought on behalf of immigrant workers against exploitative employment practice; fearlessly faced all the elements of establishment authority; alerted many in the trade union movement to the issues of vulnerability of immigrant workers; and highlighted the fight to maintain basic trade union rights. Her resolve and courage should be remembered and celebrated. Also, Grunwick raised many wide-ranging questions about trade unionism, rights in the workplace and dignity at work - themes that still resonate and are relevant today.”

The Grunwick factory, in north-west London, took on many migrant Asian workers, mostly women from East Africa, who were regarded as “hardworking and docile”. The managers sat in a glass cabinet from where they coerced workers to work overtime, and from whom the workers had to get permission even to go to the toilet. The women were willing to accept jobs that had low status and low pay, but they were not willing to accept the degrading treatment that was handed out to them.

Jayaben took the leadership to organise the workers to go on strike.  “We are the lions, Mr. Manager”, she protested. “What you are running here is not a factory. It is a zoo where there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who will dance on your fingertips; others are lions who will bite your head off.”  She was a lion, and encouraged even the “monkeys” among the workers to become lions.  Their contracts forbade them to go on strike, but 137 workers did. They were immediately sacked. To get support for their cause, they joined the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff (APEX).

After a few months picketing outside the factory, their cause was taken up by the wider trade union movement.  By June 1977 there were marches in support of the Grunwick strikers, and on some days more than 20,000 people packed themselves into the narrow lanes near Dollis Hill Tube station. The dispute rapidly escalated, culminating in pitched battles between mass pickets and police. The leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, and striking colliery workers joined in. Three of the Labour government’s ministers - Shirley Williams, Fred Mulley and Dennis Howell – also joined the picket line. Nearly 18 months into the strike, on a cold day in November 1977 – four strikers, among them Desai took the Gandhian route and went on a hunger strike.

Eventually, both the Trades Union Congress and APEX also withdrew their support. And the conciliation and arbitration service withdrew from the dispute because the Grunwick management refused to take part in mediation.  Desai and her colleagues felt abandoned and disillusioned. As she said: “Trade union support is like honey on the elbow – you can smell it, you can feel it, but you cannot taste it.”

At this point in the play in Oxford, several of us in the audience stood up and raised our fist in a gesture of solidarity with the Grunwick factory workers.  At the end of the play some of us joined in the “picket line” on the floor of the theatre.

The struggles of the working classes in East Africa today

The struggles of the working classes in East Africa fall broadly into two periods – the colonial period and the post-independence period.

During the colonial period, the working peoples of East Africa were the backbone of the anti-colonial struggle.  In 1935, Makhan Singh (the father of the trade union movement in Kenya) formed the Labour Trade Union of Kenya, and then in 1949, the East African Trade Union Congress. His union activities encompassed both political as well as economic struggles.  He fought against the British divide and rule policy of segregating black and Asian workers, and united the workers to fight against the colonial exploiting and oppressive state and in particular the prevailing labour laws. Zarina Patel’s biography of Makhan Singh [[i]] captures the struggles and spirit of early unionism in East Africa, a struggle that went beyond the racial and tribal consciousness of workers.

As East African countries approached independence, the working classes led the resistance to Imperial Britain’s policy of breaking up the East African Federation. In November 1959, for example, the workers throughout the three countries mounted a joint strike against the East African Railways and Harbours. It was initiated by Kenya Railway African Union, soon followed by railway workers in Tanganyika and Uganda. The workers made not only economic demands, but also linked these with the demand for political independence. The strike continued intermittently until April 1960.

The Imperial state reacted strongly, and amongst the first action they took was to depoliticise the unions.  The British Trade Union Congress sent “experts” to “train” the unions on how to focus on their economic priorities. The East African unions were encouraged to join the International Transport Workers Federation and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which preached economistic unionism.

As the East African countries approached independence, the unions became part of the political struggle – which was good – but in the process the unions were integrated into the merging political parties – which was not a good development.  Along the line, the political leadership of the unions passed into the hands of politicians. These, ironically, depoliticised the unions.  Since the early 1960s, the unions have more or less surrendered their independence.  There are still people in the unions who are trying to delink the unions from the hegemony of the political parties, but they are fighting a losing battle. The African trade unions in our times are a pale shadow of their past. The workers movement throughout the world – and not just in East Africa – is facing serious challenges in the era of “free trade” and globalisation.

We also have a regional trade union – the East African Trade Union Confederation – that seeks to involve workers in issues concerning regional integration, and the promotion and ratification of international labour standards by the partner states, harmonisation of labour laws and promotion of free movement of labour and capital across borders. They have achieved some successes, but they face huge challenges from a political leadership that has still not been able to liberate themselves from their neo-colonial ties to the Empire.

Some conclusions

The working classes throughout the world are facing serious problems in our times, partly because of “globalisation”, but partly also because the politically astute union leaders in our countries are marginalised by the compromised leaders who are in the pockets of the state and the ruling elites. 

Let me conclude by reiterating what Jayaben Desai said when the strike action against the Grunwick factory over nearly two years was abandoned for lack of support from the unions.  A disillusioned Jayaben said:  “Trade union support is like honey on the elbow – you can smell it, you can feel it, but you cannot taste it.”

We need to strategise unionism from an altogether new perspective. I will not dwell on this now, but there are examples of working class action that do give some reason for optimism.  I have space to give one example only. It is the long struggle between Africa and the European Union on the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), whilst African governments have surrendered to Europe, the workers are fighting back. In 2007, for instance, the Kenya Small Scale Farmers Forum (KSSFF) filed a case against their government, arguing that EPA would put at risk the livelihoods of millions of Kenyan and East African farmers. On 30 October 2013, the High Court of Kenya ruled in KSSFF’s favour. The court directed the Kenya government to establish a mechanism for involving stakeholders (including small-scale farmers) in the on-going EPA negotiations, and to encourage public debate on this matter. But the government has turned a deaf year both to the KSSFF and the High Court.


* Professor Yash Tandon is from Uganda and has worked at many different levels as an academic, a teacher, a political thinker, a rural development worker, a civil society activist, and an institution builder. He was involved in the democratic struggles in Uganda and was member of the interim Uganda Parliament (1979-80).



[i] Zarina Patel, Unquiet: the Life and Times of Makhan Singh, Nairobi: Kenya Human Rights Commission, 2002