Communities in action: the Indian Workers' Association

enlarge this picture
Opening of Indian Workers' Association offices, 18 Featherstone Road, Southall, in 1962 (Courtesy of digital:works)
Show source description

This photo was taken at the opening of Indian Workers' Association offices on 18 Featherstone Road, Southall, in 1962. The photograph features (from left to right) M. Gill, G. Dhillon, S. Malhi, H. Ruprah, A. Rai, UK Government Immigration Minister, T. Toor, P. Padda, S. Bidwell MP, K. Bhatia (IWA Welfare Officer). 

The photo is part of an archive collection gathered for an oral history documentary project - 'Indian Workers Association (Southall): 60 years of Struggles and Achievements'. The film documents and captures the lived experiences and memories of people who came to Southall as immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s, who faced discrimination and who organised themselves and supported the establishment of the Indian Workers' Association (IWA).

The oral history documentary film was made by members of the local community (volunteers of all ages), who were trained in oral history methods, film and recording techniques. These volunteers, with the help of film-makers at digital:works, conducted film interviews with founding members of the IWA and their families. This provided an opportunity for those interviewed to tell their own stories about the heritage of the IWA in Southall and for the project team to preserve this history in film for future generations. 

The full documentary can be viewed online. 




Global roots

The formation of the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) in Coventry from 1938 onwards was the outcome of a number of activities involving immigrant workers that spans not only Europe, but also the Americas.

The Ghadar Party, formed in 1913 in California, was one of the inspirations behind the formation of the Indian Workers' Association in Britain. The Ghadar Party was made up of Indian migrants who had migrated from British India to California. 'Ghadar' means rebel and the party was formed with the twin goals of opposing British colonialism in India and fighting for the rights of Indian migrants on the West Coast of the USA and Canada. According to IWA members a letter from a Ghadar Party member in India was sent to England in the early 1930s, in order to encourage the formation of a similar organisation there. 

The Indian Workers' Association: phase one

In the late nineteenth century, workers’ associations emerged as pre-party organisations throughout Europe, often as fronts for fledgling Communist parties to represent workers outside of the trade union movement. Trade unions, which developed from skilled workers' organisations, often didn't represent the broad requirements of labour. Workers' associations offered an alternative means of organisation and representation. 

The UK's first IWA branch was set up in Coventry in 1938. In the context of imperial Britain, it seems appropriate that this group would emerge under the mantle of an association. British authorities had already taken steps to ban the Communist party in India due to fears about the spread of a revolution, following the Russian Revolution.

In a recent analysis of intelligence reports of the pre-war period, historians Rehana Ahmed and Sumita Mukherjee have noted that the IWA attracted interest from its worker members due to its preoccupation with workers' concerns:

'The [IWA] is essentially a working-class movement which makes no serious attempt to attract the Indian intelligentsia or the English sympathiser.' (Rehana Ahmed & Sumita Mukherjee (2011), Networks of Resistance

The main focus of the IWA, in its pre-war phase, was to support Indian workers who were resident in Britain and to fight against British colonial rule. This early IWA went into decline in the post-war period, largely due to the euphoria of India's independence and the sojourner nature of the committee members.

The emergence of a 'new' IWA 

The late 1950s saw the emergence of a 'new' IWA. Though there was no direct contact in terms of personnel, the leaders of the new IWA were aware of the political legacy and history of organising Indian workers in the UK. Up until his untimely death in 1979, the new IWA was led by Jagmohan Joshi, a charismatic speaker and a poet of some repute.  

Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, IWAs were set up in Britain’s industrial centres. Branches were to be found in Birmingham, Southall, Leeds, Huddersfield, Bradford, Glasgow, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Gravesend, Nottingham and Derby. These IWA branches were set up to organise workers and address the challenges facing new immigrants, the majority of whom could not read, write or speak English. They found themselves confined to manual and labouring jobs, subject to unscrupulous and exploitative employers, and exposed to racial discrimination. The IWA aimed to defend the rights of these workers; in particular, to support anti-deportation campaigns and the anti-racist movement in Britain. 

Various attempts were made to unite the multiple local IWA branches, to create a single unified national Indian Workers' Association, but due to the political factions which formed within the IWA, two main centres of activity emerged – in Southall (West London) and in Birmingham. Two organisations, The Indian Workers' Association, Great Britain (IWA GB) and the Indian Workers' Association, Southall (IWA) became the main focus for organising. 

Spotlight on IWA Southall

The IWA in Southall was set up in 1956. Its founding members included Amar Singh Takhar, Jaswant Singh Dhami, Ajit Singh Rai, Harbans Singh Ruprah, Vishnu Dutt Sharma and Rattan Singh Sandhu.

From its inception, the IWA in Southall aspired to promote mass community and worker participation. Unlike other IWA branches in Britain, IWA Southall emerged as an Association in which individuals of differing political affiliations, persuasions and interests would become engaged and collectively work in the interests of all from the Indian sub-continent, including Pakistani workers, as well as immigrant communities from Africa and the Caribbean. As a secular organisation it supported and worked with people from diverse faiths and their organisations. 

The IWA’s early work in Southall and surrounding area was against the endemic exploitation of and overt discrimination facing Asian workers such as low and unequal wages, long working hours, bad and unsafe working practices, employers’ failures and refusals to address workers’ grievances, unfair dismissals and so on. The IWA was involved with the following strike actions in and around Southall in the 1960s: 

- Rockware Glass factory, 1962. This was one of the first industrial actions by Asian workers in Southall. Prominent IWA leader, Vishnu Dutt Sharma, led the workers’ ‘walk out’. An estimated 165 workers were sacked including Vishnu Sharma.

- Dura Tube & Wire Ltd Strike, 1965: This strike centred around low wages, cost cutting by management and the right to organise a union. Led by a number of activists, including Gurdial Dhami and Darshan Singh Giani (both later IWA Presidents), most of the Asian workers were organised and recruited into the TGWU union. They went on strike for two weeks.

- R. Woolfe’s Rubber Factory Strike, 1965: This factory became synonymous with early Indian Punjabi settlers and occupies a unique place in their history, as well as in the history of Southall. The strike centred around anti-union practices, unsafe working conditions, low wages and other grievances. Prominent IWA leaders, including Ajit Rai, Vishnu Sharma, Jaswant Dhami, Harbans Ruprah and Piara Khabra, worked or were working at the Rubber factory, and the IWA played a prominent role in supporting the strikers.

In terms of welfare, the IWA in Southall was the first to launch a Welfare Service in 1957 at Southall Community Centre. The service provided support to immigrant arrivals, many of whom could not speak, read or write English, and had no knowledge of public services or the role of public institutions.  In 1962, with a growing Asian population and increased demand, the IWA opened a Welfare Centre on Featherstone Road and appointed full-time staff to provide information and advice, along with a Reading Room and Adult Education activities. This Centre also acted as the main IWA base and accommodated its political campaigns and work.

The main areas of welfare support focused on issues related to forged passports and the irregular status of workers, immigration, taxation, accessing basic rights and public services such as education and housing, discrimination in employment, bringing spouses and families into Britain, and translating and interpreting support. Over the decades the IWA’s Welfare Service, particularly its information advice and legal service work on immigration, became nationally acclaimed. 

In 1965, Southall's IWA purchased the Dominion Cinema for £75,000 with the aim of turning it into an independent base and a venue for political, social and cultural activity for the growing Asian community. The IWA took out a loan of £50,000 and raised the remaining £25,000 from its members and the local community.

enlarge this picture
Mr Ruprah, IWA President, receiving the keys to the Dominion Cinema from IWA solicitor Mr. Hosteller in 1965. Courtesy of digital:works

The Dominion Cinema began showing Indian films, which proved extremely popular, especially in the absence of any other social outlet or activity for the Asian community at the time. By the 1970s, films were shown throughout the week and the cinema attracted tens of thousands of film-goers. The films generated substantial income for the IWA, which was utilised to fund its social and welfare support services, including immigration, information and advice work, and other cultural and political activity and campaigns.

With the advent of video films in the mid-1970s, cinema audiences plummeted.  In 1982, facing a crippling debt, the IWA in Southall was forced to lease the Dominion Cinema building to Ealing Council.  The site of the former Dominion Cinema today accommodates the Dominion Community Arts & Cultural Centre and Southall Library.

IWA activity in other regions: 1960s to 1990s

In 1965, the president of the IWA GB, Avtar Jouhl, invited Malcolm X to Smethwick in Birmingham. At that time Malcolm X was visiting Britain to highlight the civil rights struggle of African-Americans. He was invited to Smethwick to comment on and show solidarity with Asian and African-Caribbean workers in Britain, who were also fighting racism and discrimination. Jouhl hoped to link the struggle against racism in the UK with the civil rights movement in America. 

Throughout the 1970s, IWA branches across the country participated in general industrial action as well as fighting for the particular issues that were facing migrant workers. These issues included discrimination in employment, housing and street racism. This period represented the peak of the IWA's membership as well as the organisation's activity. This period also saw the emergence of political mobilisation in the form of Asian Youth Movements across the country (see also: Resisting racism: the Bradford 12 defence campaign). The AYMs took up the mantle of organising against racism, whilst IWA activity became more embedded in mainstream British politics through engagement with organisations such as the Commission for Racial Equality as well as the Trades Union Congress.

During the 1980s, the IWAs took on a greater welfare role amongst the multicultural communities that formed in Britain's inner cities. The material legacies of the organisation include the The Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Centre in Birmingham, the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Centre in Leicester, and the IWA Day Centre and Community Organisation in Bradford. Today, each of these groups maintains a concern with immigrant welfare, campaigns for workers' rights and offers advice surgeries and general support.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the IWAs, like many other left-wing organisations, went into a period of decline as a political and mobilising force. Having reduced the scale of their activities to become mainly community organisations, they nonetheless continue to play a significant social role in the communities where their centres are based, with a shift in focus to offering welfare rights and immigration advice. Former members of the IWA became embedded in mainstream local politics, such as the Ealing MP, Piara Khabra.

Legacies and limitations

The IWA has emerged as a national representative voice of Asian communities, and over decades has developed a close working relationship with the trade union movement to protect the interests and rights of immigrant workers. It has been central to the movement that would emerge amongst Asian workers to organise and unionise themselves, oppose exploitation and assert their rights in employment, driving and fronting the demands for change, equal treatment, dignity and respect. Its work has inspired generations of immigrants nationally to stand up, self-organise and fight against discrimination, and challenge unscrupulous and exploitative employers through collective and industrial action.

Reflecting changes in political ideologies, IWAs in Britain did not manage to reproduce themselves through the generations. One reason for this was the change in class composition of the British Indian community. As this community became increasingly middle class, it moved away from the largely working-class areas where the IWA’s centres were based.

enlarge this picture
IWA Election Poster. Courtesy of digital:works

Internally too the IWAs expereinced problems. The leadership remained overwhelmingly male from its inception, and this short-sightedness over gender issues was reflected throughout the organisation's history. The progressive outlooks offered by the IWAs, were seriously undermined by a lack of interest in feminist politics, which ultimately damaged their efforts to change attitudes within the communities they came from. Generational shifts and a myopia on gender issues ultimately marked the IWA's decline in the UK. 



Share this article
Post to Twitter Post to Facebook
Questions and Student Activities