Forty Asian workers are gathered outside the Ambala Foods factory in Stratford, east London. They stand in small groups chatting in several different languages, playing cards or eating curry from polystyrene bowls.
Every so often a flash car drives towards the factory. The workers grab their T&G union placards and assemble in front of the gates to vent their anger.
The Ambala Foods workers make hand-prepared Indian sweets, sold in specialist shops and restaurants across Britain. It is tough, skilled work, but they earn little more than the minimum wage.
None of those who spoke to Socialist Worker had ever been on strike before. But on Friday of last week, as they began a battle against low pay, they showed how highly exploited workers with no tradition of union organisation can begin to fight back.
Lokon Miah is a young T&G union rep at the factory. He says, “This is about our pay. Most of us earn only £194 a week. Those who have worked here for more than 30 years get a little more. We used to get a rise of £10 each year, but for the last five years we’ve had no rise.”
Another worker interjects, “I’ve worked here eight years. People just can’t live on our pay.” Ali Siraj, an elderly worker who has been at Ambala for 25 years, adds, “Our sick pay is only about £25 a week.”
The ballot for action at Ambala was overwhelming — 93 percent of the workers voted for strikes. Several workers who arrived to work were turned away.
There was a 15 minute stand-off as workers refused to allow their boss through the picket line. As he drove through the line, he hit the leg of an employee, Shoukath Ali, who has worked at the factory for over 20 years.
According to T&G regional organiser Tony Gould, the workers plan to strike for 24 hours each Friday until their demands are met. They are also considering escalating their action.
The efforts of the Ambala workers have allowed the company to grow in recent years. This point is not lost on the workforce. One striker told Socialist Worker, “We know that the company is profitable. Every few months our bosses turn up in new, expensive cars.”