04-08-2022

The Strike at Imperial Typewriters

The South Asian population of Leicester was united against the improper business practices of The Imperial Typewriter Company. For close to 14 weeks in the May of 1974, over 500 South Asian workers protested against discrimination in pay and promotions. Refused support from the Transport and General Workers Union, the body responsible for ensuring the rights of all workers, their heroic struggle altered damaging stereotypes.

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The Leicester of today proudly boasts of its diversity. It is a city founded upon the ideals of multiculturalism, the fundamentals of which David Cameron once rubbished in a 2011 speech. The prime minister angered his opponents when he blamed our multicultural cities for spreading radical thought. His was a belief that minority communities could not integrate and thrive within modern Britain. The root of which is embedded in British imperialism. 

In 1972, Britain became the new home for over 27,000 Ugandan Asians when the merciless dictator Idi Amin demanded the expulsion of the country’s Asian minority within 90 days. Amin had stoked the flames of anti-Asian sentiment in Uganda, with waves of racialised violence committed by forces under his command. Their presence in Uganda had been a product of British colonialism, when in 1895 the East Africa Company sought out labour to build the Uganda Railway. Some migrants returned back to India at the end of their contracts, whereas others chose to stay, becoming financially prosperous as ‘colonial overseers’ for the British Empire. Accused of ‘sabotaging Uganda’s economy and encouraging corruption’ by Idi Amin’s military government, the Asian population was forced to flee en masse. 

Many of the those expelled from Uganda ended up in Leicester, where, according to the 2011 census, 11,000 Ugandan Asians reside. Their migration was not encouraged by Leicester City Council, who created a sinister advertising campaign, distributed amongst the Ugandan Press. Their ‘important announcement’ attempted to dissuade them from travelling to a city that was supposedly stretched across housing, education and health provision.

‘In your own interests and those of your family, you should accept the advice of the Uganda Resettlement Board and not come to Leicester’.
A quote from an advert taken out by Leicester City Council in assorted Ugandan Press.

The Labour-run council’s approach was neglectful of a growing community of Asian settlers. Questions have continued to be raised as to whether racial discrimination was a decisive factor in the decision to advertise in the Ugandan press. Sir Peter Soulsby, who was first elected to the city council in 1973 after the advert was placed, once stated that it represented the views of a number of Labour party councillors at the time. Fear of ethnic minority immigration, a form of racial discrimination, was not limited to right-leaning political groups. The ‘dishonourable’ advert was propelled by the speeches of Enoch Powell and would later feed the rhetoric of groups such as the National Front; a shameful act in the history of a city that today celebrates its broad diversity.

Regardless of this antagonism, the advert had a converse effect on those fleeing Uganda. Rather than being discouraged, people were intrigued as to why Leicester’s services would be overextended to the degree they supposedly were. Thousands subsequently journeyed to the city. Highly skilled Asian workers struggled to find work, while others realised that they were overlooked for promotions given to their British counterparts. Those that could opted to establish their own businesses, realising the large Asian market that was available to them. The city’s ‘Golden Mile’, a busy road lined with shops and restaurants of South Asian heritage, is the clearest example of those successful business owners. Others accepted jobs within Leicester’s manufacturing sector, for which their participation was a fundamental part of its continued success.

Courtesy of the Leicester Mercury Archive

In May 1974, 39 South Asian women went on strike. Against the advice and wishes of their union representatives, these women stood firmly against prejudice. The unofficial action was joined by over 500 workers, for whom a lack of opportunity and pay discrimination was acknowledged when it was established that white colleagues were being paid greater salaries for the their work. Along with economic wrong-doing implemented by Imperial Typewriters, the racial exploitation interwoven into the hierarchy of the trade unions forced the hand of the striking workers.

The factory employed 1600 staff, of which over 1100 were South Asian. Hierarchy within the factory was not representative of workforce diversity, yet the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) denied a clear racial bias. The TGWU was fronted by George Bromley, a magistrate and member of the Leicester Labour Party. Despite the evidence of prejudice, the trade union representative denied wrongdoing on the pasrt of the employer. His narrow-mindedness failed to see fault with unequal pay between white and South Asian workers, instead focussing on supposed tensions between South Asians and those from Sub-Saharan Africa.  

“The workers have not followed the proper disputes procedure. They have no legitimate grievances and it’s difficult to know what they want. I think there are racial tensions, but they are not between the whites and coloureds. The tensions are between those Asians from the sub-continent and those from Africa. This is not an isolated incident, these things will continue for many years to come. But in a civilised society, the majority view will prevail. Some people must learn how things are done…”
George Bromley of the TGWU.

His bureaucracy, claiming that ‘some people must learn how things are done’, stemmed from the strikers' unofficial measures to begin their action. With limited support from the unions, the strikers relied upon the support of family and friends. Picketing support ‘reached right down into the community’ of South Asians, with the notable absence of Leicester’s white working class.

Hasmukh Khetani, one of the leaders of the Imperial Strike Committee was enraged by the failure of the white left to support the action.

“One got the impression that the white left organisations…were more concerned about a fascist threat…than actual support for black workers’ struggle’.
Hasmukh Khetani, from an article within an edition of the International Socialist pamphlet.

During a time in which The National Front (NF) was prevalent in Britain, Leicester’s broadening diversity embittered fascists, leading to violence against minority groups. Their aggression was palpable, at times tangible; the atmosphere was one of hostility. The tone had been set by the city council. Pay restraints and widespread job losses under Ted Heath’s Conservative government were blamed on the latest waves of immigration. Creating a climate of prejudice and fear, the National Front used this ill-feeling within Leicester to recruit thousands of new members. Their numbers were such that they even came close to winning seats within the council. Socialists from the city then focussed their efforts on expelling the NF from the fabric of Leicester, managing to banish their newspaper in the mid-1970s. Focussing more on the exploits of the NF, the white left organisations such as the International Socialists and The Communist Party failed to show ample support for the South Asian workers' plight.

Trade Unions had been pursuing fair pay and improved conditions for workers in Britain, but the ethics with which they were run were never questioned. It was accepted by many left-wing commentators that the trade unions adopted a ‘national union model’, which saw ‘conciliatory gestures made towards equal opportunity for ethnic minorities’. Though in the opinion of Khetani the International Socialists were unmoved by their action, others supported them vehemently. Socialist literature of the time illustrates the ineffectiveness of trade union leadership.

‘...done nothing whatever to combat racial discrimination… or the racist ideas which exist in the minds of many of their members’.
Paul Foot, from an International Socialist pamphlet.

Courtesy of the Leicester Mercury Archive

The democratic entities that are trade unions can at times allow for the infiltration of values and ideas that undermine the will of the majority. The leadership of the TGWU during the early 1970s was influenced by conservatism and racialism, ideas that rendered it useless in the protection of minority workers. In their pamphlets, the TGWU blamed ‘white workers and the intervention of the NF’ for incidents of racism and discrimination at Imperial Typewriters. No blame was given to the leaders of the union, their complicity was ignored and instead, emphasis was placed upon the need to hire more black workers into leadership positions. They used their literature to launch a manifesto to bolster the representation of black members, a measure that would promote anti-racist action within their ranks. This declaration was a failure, as, by 1986, only 4 percent of black workers held elected posts within their unions, compared with 11 percent of white workers.

Striking workers were labelled as troublemakers by newspapers, but their picket lines held firm until some concessions were made by management. Some workers would return to work, but others were removed from their positions. By the end of 1974, the Imperial factory was closed and production moved abroad. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the strike had a profound effect on the discriminatory attitudes of many. Female Asian workers had demanded fair wages and representation, forcing worker’s unions to take an introspective look at their practices. Their action helped to shift attitudes within Leicester, helping to form a city that today celebrates being the most diverse city outside of London. Hidden, however, are accounts of discrimination effecting a voiceless workforce.

Fast fashion brands have, in recent years, been found guilty of exploiting the minority workforce of Leicester. The city provides an attractive landscape for manufacturing brands as cheap warehouse space and the rising cost of imports have encouraged brands to reassess their business models. With more than 1,000 factories and in excess of 10,000 workers, Leicester’s garment industry was poorly regulated during the 2010s. A study by the University of Leicester established that up to 90 percent of the workforce was being paid less than minimum wage. Failing to adhere to minimum wage legislation and non-compliance with COVID-19 protocols, businesses have continued to mistreat workers in the city, with prosecutions lacking the necessary severity to prevent reoffending. 

For Leicester City Council to prove it has learnt from its historic wrongdoing, it must stand up for its minority workforce.

Contribution

For more information about Leicester's Ugandan Asian population, the following resource provides great insight:
'Don't Come to Leicester' by Loud Minority

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