Play about Grunwick protest highlights ongoing injustice in workplace

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By Lauren Codling

THE writer and lead actress of a play about the Grunwick strike against workplace exploitation said conditions now are “possibly worsening” for those in employment.

We are the Lions, Mr Manager! tells the story of Jayaben Desai, the leader of a strike movement against Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in the 1970s.

The India-born activist fought for the rights of workers, culminating in a two-year protest that saw strikers across the country picket against working conditions, pay inequality and racism within the workplace.

Neil Gore told Eastern Eye that the Grunwick protest was the beginning of “normalising” bad working conditions, but noted that monitoring in warehouse jobs has “actually got worse”.

Patel with co-star Neil Gore in the new play (Photo by: Paul Sandy)

“It’s a continuation of the same thing [that happened at Grunwick],” Gore said last Friday (24). “You see exploitation in the workplace, especially exploitation of immigrant workers and so forth, that carries on today and in a way, it is worse.”

The play is an immersive stage show which attempts to get the audience as involved as possible. They are encouraged to get up from their seats to join the ‘picket’ and are even given various props to help them interact with the production, including protest placards and small torches to shine during musical numbers.

The show’s name comes from a direct quote from Desai who, in comparing the factory to a zoo, told her manager that the employees were not “monkeys who dance on your fingertips… we are the lions, Mr Manager!”

Jayaben Desai leading protests against exploitation of workers in the 1970s

The role of Desai is portrayed in the play by actress Medhavi Patel, 33.

Patel, who has worked in corporate jobs in the past, said she knows about being unable to express views freely in the workplace.

“I’ve worked in places and had different situations where I couldn’t say what I wanted to, but I’ve always had the support of my family and friends,” she said. “I know you have to speak up and I have – I’ve had support to do that, but there are people out there who don’t.”

The play is currently in the middle of a UK tour, and a Q&A session was held last Tuesday (14) prior to the performance at the Tara Theatre in south London.

The session was attended by a series of key speakers, including Desai’s son Sunil, and writer and journalist Amrit Wilson, who said that although a lot has changed since Grunwick, a lot has stayed the same.

“[There is still] a large scale of racism, a scale of misogyny, which is increasing if anything, and the sheer exploitation of workers which is worse than it was,” she pointed out. “We now have zero-hour contracts, workers who do not have rights, and this is becoming normalised.”

In recent years, workplace exploitation has continued to be exposed in the UK. This year, the National Minimum and Living Wage statistics showed in 2016-17, HMRC’s enforcement teams identified £10.9 million in back pay for 98,150 of the UK’s lowest paid workers – a 69 per cent increase on those helped in the previous year.

A number of high-profile companies in Britain have been tarred by reports of workplace exploitation.

In 2015, it was reported that employees at the retail chain Sports Direct were effectively paid below minimum wage, were body-searched daily throughout their shifts and lectured by name via tannoy if their working pace was not fast enough.

Patel said she hoped the play inspires people to go out there and fight for what they believe in.

“No one is taught to fight, we are taught to accept,” she told Eastern Eye. “You should be able to have that discussion with employers – they are an asset to you, but you are also an asset to them.”

Gore agreed with Patel and said he hoped the performance motivates people to “continue the struggle”.

He said: “You can’t stop fighting – you fight again, and you fight again,” he said. “The fight goes on – the next generation has to pick up the baton and do the same again.

“We want the spirit of Jayaben to continue as well. We want to make sure [what she stood for] isn’t forgotten. Someone like her should be remembered.”

We are the Lions, Mr Manager! is showing at selected UK theatres until April 2018