INTRODUCTION

In the hot summer of August 1976 a walk out by a small number of South Asian workers at the Grunwick photo–processing laboratories at Brent, North London sparked off an industrial dispute that was to last for two years. The initial complaints concerned poor conditions, compulsory over–time and a heavy–handed management. The strike escalated into a demand by the strikers (Gujarati women who had initially migrated from India to East Africa and then to the UK) for the right to join a trade union, and was supported (after ten months on strike) by mass secondary picketing by a range of trade unions, anti–racist organisations and feminist groups. Although it was ultimately lost, this strike has become constructed as an iconic moment in the history of the labour movement: the moment when the trade unions recognised the rights of women and minority workers as equal to those of white working class men. Some 30 years later — at an airline catering company in Heathrow called Gate Gourmet — another group of South Asian, mainly Punjabi women, took part in another high profile industrial dispute. Like the Grunwick strikers, they too have failed to achieve the aims; but in their case they have not enjoyed long term trade union support which was promised by the legacy of Grunwick.

These two groups of workers are part of the growing number of South Asian women who have claimed their place in

the factories, offices and service sectors of the UK labour force since the 1970s. Some were forced to flee their homes in East Africa where large parts of the colonial economy had been occupied by educated, skilled and entrepreneurial migrants from the Indian sub–continent — only to be forced out by the political changes of the post–independence period. Others came directly from the Indian sub–continent as increasingly restrictive UK immigration policy changed the nature of migration from primary migration from the New Commonwealth to family reunion. Most of the women who came directly from South Asia since the 1970s migrated as part of a family strategy to seek a better life in the UK. But for many, life in Britain was hard.