April 28 2021
My father’s side of the family are Ugandan Asians. They arrived in the city of Leicester along with thousands of other refugees during the exodus of 1972. Like many people from Leicestershire, I had known something of the Imperial Typewriter Company because my uncle had been an assembly worker at the firm back in the ‘70s and my father sometimes told me stories about him. What can a strike from this period teach us about feminist futures?
In May 1974, over 500 predominantly South Asian workers went on strike at the Imperial Typewriter factory. Their grievances came from a lack of opportunities for promotion, as well as unpaid bonuses. The striking workers saw the local branch of the Transport and General Worker’s Union (TGWU) as complicit in their underpayment. The factory closed in August 1974, and many said the strike was a “nail in the coffin.”
Recession had hit manufacturing in the 1970s and, as a result, many factories in Leicester were closing. Jobs were more difficult to come by and worker wages fell. Unions had begun launching strikes across the country, shaking government and industry. Politicians sought to capitalize on this climate of fear, scapegoating immigrants, many of whom had been previously welcomed to fill jobs back when industry was booming.
In 1972, Uganda expelled thousands of South Asians, with around 11,000 moving to Leicester in search of new lives. These migrants were greeted by hostility and racism, on a street and local authority level, but despite hardships many found work in local factories – with a good number making their way to Imperial Typewriter assembly lines. A lot of bosses saw immigrant workers as ‘factory fodder’ who could be made to work harder than white workers, often with lower bonuses. Imperial was no different in this respect, with its new owners seeking a rise in falling profits. They saw Leicester’s new pool of immigrant workers as an opportunity.
An Asian Worker Strike had already taken place at Mansfield Hosiery Mills in Loughborough in 1972. After 12 weeks of strike action the strikers had won, proving that Asian workers could fight and win. It is said that the Mansfield strike was triggered when an Asian woman was told that she could no longer wear a sari to work, but the strike went well beyond this. It was a response to harsh conditions, unfair practices, and racism in general (of which the denigration of Asian women on the factory floor was but one manifestation). Still, the sari incident is important as it speaks to the sense of disrespect many Asian women felt while working in Britain’s factories.
One of the catalysts for the strike at Imperial Typewriters was a mix up in the office, which saw a South Asian woman being wrongly given the pay packet of a white female colleague. The South Asian woman and her white colleague had been friends on the same assembly line, and her frustration at getting paid less sparked a conversation about race-related pay discrepancies on the factory floor. Angry at being treated as less than white workers, a group of 39 mostly South Asian women workers walked out on strike from the Copdale Road branch of Imperial Typewriters. They soon had the backing of hundreds more (predominantly South Asian) workers who had grievances of their own.
Speaking to the present
This swap in pay packets is, as with the sari incident at Mansfield Hosiery, just one of the threads that launched an historic strike, yet it is a moment that feels incredibly important to reflect on today. It makes me wonder how far we have come. What is the value of people of colour within the British workforce today and is this reflected in their pay? What does it take for workers in any industry to talk about discrimination and how much they earn? At what risk is this information offered and to whom? To what extent does company-ordained secrecy among workers pertaining to pay still uphold powerful racist structures at the expense of workers from communities of colour? As recent analysis by the TUC has demonstrated, the Covid pandemic reflects the continuing structural racism of the UK labour market, with jobless rates among Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups double the rate for white people. Workers of colour are also more likely to have reduced work hours and pay during the pandemic, a fact that tells a familiar story of hardship, struggle, and endurance.
Informal worker networks sharing information about pay to expose systemic discrepancies is one way forward, as is putting the onus on employers to be transparent around pay and workloads across demographics, alongside the provision of accessible, open source data for their workforces to analyze. The local TGWU failed to help the strikers at Imperial, which demonstrates that (despite centralized efforts to the contrary) the British Trade Union movement of the ‘70s was susceptible to racism within its own ranks. It’s a reminder that today’s institutions – no matter their official stance – can easily reflect the racism of the society in which they are situated via the prejudices of their employees. It speaks to the constant vigilance required to create organizations and businesses that don’t just talk ‘diversity’, but actively advocate for workers of colour. The impact of the gig economy on unionization and how precarious work affects settled BAME communities and migrant workers is an evolving story. What’s clear to me from my research journey is that learning from struggles of the ‘70s can help provide courage, sustenance, and inspiration for battles ahead.
Divya Ghelani is a Berlin-based writer of short stories, novels and screenplays. She grew up in Leicestershire and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and an MPhil in Literary Studies from the University of Hong Kong. Her stories have appeared on Radio 4, BareLit Anthology, Litro: India, Too Asian, Not Asian Enough and more. Her Arts Council funded oral histories project Typewritten Tales was the inspiration and starting point behind The Strike At Imperial Typewriters exhibition, for which she collaborated with B3 Media. You can read more about these projects at: www.strikeatimperial.net and www.divyaghelani.com
“File:Police in front of Imperial Typewriter in Leicester England August 1974.jpg” by GeorgeLouis is licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0
“Katie Keypunch – International model 032 (c.1941)” by ElmerCat is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/