GATE GOURMET

In another hot summer just less than 30 years later, another group of South Asian women workers – direct migrants from Punjab (India) - took on the airline catering company Gate Gourmet in a dispute that for a time grounded British Airways planes. These women were part of the long-established diasporic community, attracted to West London not least because of the growing demand for labour in local factories and hospitals as well as the many airport-related services. They arrived in the 1970s and 1980s as young brides or daughters of migrant families, typically from a rural farming background. Although educated to secondary level, they had little English and had to settle for “unskilled” work, with low pay and prospects. They moved jobs frequently in search of better pay and conditions, and in response to changing labour demand, and looked to the trade unions to support their rights and entitlements.

In the 1990s, BA outsourced the preparation of in-flight meals to Gate Gourmet, provoking a long trajectory of deterioration in the terms and conditions for the workers. On 10 August 2005, the management brought in agency workers who took the place of the workers who had been away on their tea break. In response the workforce, in the presence of at least one union shop steward, left the production line and assembled in the canteen.

This was construed as unofficial strike action, and after two verbal warnings, the company dismissed over 700 workers over the megaphone. In the eyes of the women involved this was a “lock out” rather than a strike.

Following a short-lived solidarity action by airport baggage handlers at British Airways, which was deemed unlawful secondary action under 1982 legislation, a compromise agreement was negotiated by the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU, now UNITE) which involved a selective re-hiring of former employees on new terms and conditions and the compulsory redundancy of 144 workers – mainly older workers and those with health problems. Of these, 56 women refused an offer of compensation, maintaining their resistance. They insisted that dignity and protection at work is a basic human right; one that their employment in the UK labour market should afford them.