Birmingham: Asian Women on the Picket Line

A black and white photograph shows a group of several Asian women on the picket line with a placard in the background that reads ‘Supreme quilting & Co on official strike’
  Factory machinists on the picket line Credit: Derek Bishton
A black and white photograph shows a group of several Asian women on the picket line with a placard in the background that reads ‘Supreme quilting & Co on official strike’

When

1980s and 1990s

Where

Birmingham

When you think of sweatshops, you might not think of Birmingham. But take yourself back to the 1980s and 1990s, and that’s exactly the word used by some employees to describe the factories they worked in.

When things got worse in two such factories, the Asian women working there took matters into their own hands.

At Supreme Quilting, a clothing factory, employees worked in poor conditions for very low pay. Some women earned as little as £30 a week.

Tensions finally erupted at the factory when, in 1982, two male employees were sacked after they were caught recruiting for the Transport and General Workers Union.

The factory’s 300 Asian women machinists took action. Outraged at the men’s sacking and angry over working conditions, the women organised a 24-hour strike at the factory’s sister company, Raindi Textiles. They banded together on the picket line, bringing their children and even setting up mobile cooking equipment to serve hot drinks.

Although the two men did not get their jobs back, the strike succeeded and the union was recognised.

Workers complained of skin rashes and dizziness from the tanks of heated chemicals. The management ignored the request of a pregnant woman who lifted metal pieces of a degreasing tank to be moved to lighter tasks… she was rushed to hospital and suffered a miscarriage.

Wrench and Virdee, Organising the Unorganised: ‘Race. Poor Work and Trade Unions (University of Warwick 1995)

Burnsall Ltd was a metal finishing company where racist abuse, unequal pay and unsafe working conditions were rife.

Things reached breaking point in 1992 when the factory’s management refused the women’s membership of the GMB general union. The women went on strike. Their demands were simple: equal pay, union recognition and basic health and safety.

The strikers were initially supported by the GMB. But after a decade of Thatcherism, the unions had lost their traditional base. The GMB were prevented by law from calling mass pickets or sympathy strikes and seemed more concerned with maintaining peace with the government than rallying support for the strikers. It was claimed that the GMB excluded strikers from their meetings and threatened them if they showed any signs of militancy.

The employer was breaking the law… but when mass pickets were organised we were threatened. And when scabs [people who crossed the picket line] attacked us with knives, and we were injured seriously, it was we who were arrested. Whose side is the law on?

Burnsall striker, quoted by Sarbjit Johal, Inqilab magazine Winter 1993-94

Despite huge community support, the GMB decided the strike was unwinnable and called it off after a bitter year-long struggle. The workers may have lost the strike, but they were later recognised and awarded a Civil Liberties Award from a human rights group for ‘strongly up[holding] the struggle for civil liberties in the face of considerable obstacles.’

Similar action for a living wage by marginalised migrant women – cleaners, carers, domestics – continues today, often successfully.

We started to talk to each other. Alone we could do nothing, so we decided to do something together. We have all learnt a lot from this strike, I’m much stronger now.

Darshan Kaur, Burnsall Striker, quoted in Melanie McFadyean, Punjabi, poor and mad as hell,
in The Independent 23 October 2011

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