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New AHRC-funded exhibition shows South Asian women's prominent role on the picket lines

Date: 26/09/2012

The vanguard role of South Asian women in some of the British trade union movement's most significant battles is recognised in a new exhibition launched today.

The project, called ‘Striking Women’, charts South Asian women's involvement in industrial disputes spanning the Grunwick strike of the late 1970s to the Gate Gourmet walk-out which hit headlines in 2005.

The exhibition was launched at Brent Library, Wembley, on Saturday 22nd September where it runs until 7th October. It will later be travelling to schools and community venues across London, Leicester and Manchester.

The resource has been developed by Dr Sundari Anitha from the University of Lincoln and Professor Ruth Pearson from the University of Leeds as part of a major research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The exhibition reveals that far from being docile, apolitical, limited by their domesticity and wholly determined by their culture (as they are often stereotyped), in reality women of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins have frequently been at the centre of major industrial disputes in the UK over the past half century.

Through photographs, personal testimonies of the strikers, posters and other contemporary sources, the exhibition puts the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet disputes in the wider context of South Asian women's activism in the workplace. It illustrates how migrant South Asian women in the UK have contributed to the pursuit of dignity and equality for all workers.

Dr. Anitha, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said: This story isn't just about the history of one group of people, it's about the history of workers' rights in Britain. The struggles these women faced are the same struggles many millions of people of different backgrounds have faced to secure fair pay and conditions over the decades.

This year is an important milestone for trade unionists around the world, marking the centenary of the Bread and Roses strikes of 1912. This dispute, which was led primarily by immigrant, female textile workers demanding better wages and working conditions from their employers in Massachusetts, USA, became a symbol of workers' solidarity transcending gender and cultural lines. The rose emblem is still adopted by trade union movements and their sympathisers across the globe.

Brent is a fitting venue for the launch of the Striking Women exhibition as the borough was the location of the Grunwick dispute, which flared in 1976 when the protests of workers at a photo-processing laboratory became a cause celebre for the British trade union movement. Grunwick is widely acknowledged as a watershed in British industrial relations, when trade unions traditionally associated with working class men united behind female, ethnic minority workers.

The Grunwick strike came during the heyday of industrial action. The main grievances were around poor working conditions, particularly managerial control. It started with a walk-out triggered by the imposition of overtime at very short notice. After a period of time, it became a demand for union recognition, said Dr. Anitha.

Almost 30 years later, South Asian women again found themselves on the picket lines in an industrial dispute of national proportions. Heathrow workers, including ground staff, baggage handlers and bus drivers, united in protest at the sacking of hundreds of catering staff, most of them Asian women, at Gate Gourmet, the company which supplied British Airways' in-flight meals. Although many of the sacked workers were reinstated or accepted redundancy settlements, supported by the Transport and General Workers Union, to this day a minority are still campaigning to have their claim of unfair dismissal accepted.

Notes to editors -

The project, 'Striking Women: South Asian workers' struggles in the UK labour market - from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet', is funded with a grant of £64,500 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

Image copyright Peter Marshall

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