Socialist Worker

Ambala battle has the sweet smell of workers’ struggle

by Joseph Choonara
Issue No. 1953

Workers remonstrate with their boss on the picket line (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Workers remonstrate with their boss on the picket line (Pic: Socialist Worker)

In East London a group of about 45 Asian workers, in a workplace previously unknown to the trade union movement, are reviving a militant tradition that had seemed lost to the area.

In their battle to overturn a three-year pay freeze, the workers have conducted a series of one-day strikes. On Thursday of last week they escalated their action, moving to weekly two-day strikes.

The workers at Ambala Foods in Stratford, Newham, make high quality Indian sweets which are sold in restaurants and specialist shops across Britain, and in franchised outlets from Paris to Chicago.

For years the workers did not have proper contracts and suffered low pay.

The situation became intolerable when the pay rise that they had come to expect each year was withheld. They decided to get organised.

They called in the T&G union and about 40 of the workers joined. Then, in April this year, they voted to strike.

The vote was overwhelming — 93 percent in favour of action to demand a rise of £50 a week. Almost the entire workforce turned up to picket each Friday in a series of four one-day strikes. These workers are from Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds.

As one picket put it, “So many workers — so many languages!” They range in age from their twenties to their sixties.

Their determination and militancy is winning support from longstanding trade unionists. Michael Gavan, chair of the Unison union local government branch in Newham, attended the picket line on Friday of last week.

He told Socialist Worker, “We’re full of admiration for the stand taken by these workers.

“This is exactly what we have to do to sustain the trade union movement — it’s all about ordinary rank and file members becoming active.”

Michael hoped his branch committee would be able to give financial support to the strike when it met on Wednesday of this week. He plans to bring a delegation of council workers to the picket line.

Dozens of workers picket for several hours. It’s a chance to discuss the strike, the media coverage, the latest moves by management and other issues. Even as rain poured down on the strikers last Friday their spirits were high.

Iqbal said, “We’re losing earnings, I’m on £194 a week — which is down to about £120 a week with the two strike days. But you have to make sacrifices for the sake of everyone else.

“We’re learning that we have to win support from everyone — then the bosses will listen to us.”

Navid added, “We’re planning to strike every Thursday and Friday. But we may have to go further. The strike is having some effect, but we need to win everybody — we need to build the union. We have to work on the night shift.”

Until now the night shift has been going into work, allowing Ambala’s bosses to keep some production going. But the workers are beginning to recruit new union members from this shift.

Lokon, a T&G rep who has been central to organising the strike, said, “About seven or eight people joined from the night shift in the last week.”

He added, “The bosses were worried about us moving to two days strike each week. They gave me a letter, signed by one of the managers, which said that they would give 20 of the workers a £20 a week rise. But we did not accept this offer — we want £50 for everyone.”

Ambala bosses have called the police in on every strike day as the picket line began to turn away deliveries.

There was cheering last week when a huge flour delivery truck was turned away. A brief conversation with the drivers was all it took. The Post Office mail van didn’t even stop. The driver saw the picket line and turned around straight away.

Shabir said he had never been on strike before, “But I’m enjoying it. It has been going well so far. We’re learning about being in a trade union, and fast.”

He adds that the workers have started making more demands: “They used to give us only £28 if we worked on a Saturday, and they keep wanting to do more production on a Saturday. We think we should get time and a half.”

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Sat 28 May 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1953
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