Darshan Kaur, a gentle, conventional, middle-aged Punjabi woman, lives with her family in a pebble-dashed semi in Wednesfield, a suburb of Wolverhampton. She left her village in 1967 to come to the UK to marry Shanker. She barely knew him: it was an arranged marriage. The couple will arrange marriages for their three children, aged 19, 17 and 10.

Darshan is charming and welcoming, but shows little enthusiasm for talking about herself, as if unaccustomed to attention. A devout Sikh, she unquestioningly observes the codes of her culture; she does not socialise outside her community, and apart from a predilection for Home and Away she has adopted few aspects of Western life.

An unlikely candidate, then, for the role of rebel and strike leader. Yet Darshan helped to organise a long, bitter strike at Burnsall Ltd, a metal finishing factory in Birmingham run by the O'Neill brothers, Terry and Jim, over a refusal to recognise trade-union membership. Nor is Darshan, on the face of it, an obvious prize-winner. But today, International Human Rights Day, she and the 26 Burnsall strikers, most of them Asian women, will receive the 1993 Martin Ennalls Civil Liberties Award from the human rights group Liberty. The judges felt that the Burnsall women, who eventually lost the strike, were the people who this year had 'most strongly upheld the struggle for civil liberties in the face of considerable obstacles'.

Darshan has always worked in low-paid factory jobs, leaving her children with her mother-in-law before they were of school age. Like most of the other women who worked for Burnsall in the grim Smethwick district of Birmingham, she has never learnt English properly. 'I work hard factories, no time learn English,' she says.

Life was tough during the two years at Burnsall. 'I leave house six in morning, one-and-half hours to get to work and home at nine at night. No jobs near home.' The women were paid a gross average of pounds 93.45 for a 40-hour week. They were expected to do overtime on weekdays and at weekends. Darshan often had headaches and dizzy spells. The protective clothing supplied was sometimes inadequate. 'Goggles and gloves no good.' She now has a nine-to-five job in the clothing trade, and gets pounds 3.50 to pounds 4.50 an hour. 'New job very easy and good money.'

Her 10-year-old daughter, Harjinder, acts as interpreter, while watching Neighbours out of the corner of her eye. 'I didn't tell my friends about my mum, but then they saw me on TV news translating for her,' she says proudly.

As Darshan speaks, Harjinder explains that her mother's patience was put to the test one icy day two years ago, when she slipped and hurt her arm on her way to the factory. During the morning at work the pain grew. She went to hospital, where it was put in plaster. 'I returned a couple of hours later to say I was going home, but I had to work all day in great pain.'

Harjinder leans her head on her mother's shoulder and continues, her Wolverhampton accent and high, ringing voice in contrast to her mother's mellow Punjabi.

'Jimmy O'Neill would say things like look after my babies - he was talking about his pipes, he cared more about them than about us.'

The room is narrow and comfortless. A bare bulb sheds a harsh glare on Darshan, Shanker and Harjinder and their poverty. Shanker, a shy man, watches his wife with affection and admiration.

Darshan says: 'Boss says you work same money, you carry on. Same money is less than men] Then thought, no]' she adds, with a flash of anger in her dark eyes.

At first the women were scared of their employers and frightened that in a recession they would not get other jobs. 'But we started to talk to each other. Alone we could do nothing, so we decided to do something together.'

On 13 June 1992, challenging the stereotype of the demure and meek Asian woman, 26 of the 29 workers struck over the management's refusal to recognise their membership of the GMB general union, which they had recently joined. A few days later they were sacked.

Before the strike the women not had not been close, though many were related and came from the same villages. Their communication was confined to inconsequential chatter during lunch breaks. But the strike drew them together. 'Now they are my sisters,' Darshan says.

During the year-long strike, these 'sisters' brightened up the drabness of Downing Street, where Burnsall Ltd (number 10, no less) and other small factories are to be found. In their colourful shalwar kameez, the women stood on the picket line chatting, knitting and shouting at the new workforce and the managers. But their strike was never a cause celebre, and few people heard about it.

Among their grievances were that women were paid pounds 20- pounds 30 a week less than men for doing similar work, and that health and safety conditions were inadequate. Shortly after their strike began, the local office of the Health and Safety Executive served an improvement notice on the factory, raising questions over the use of dangerous chemicals, first-aid facilites, safety precautions and the company's policy on the employment of pregnant women. One worker had miscarried when she was three months pregnant. There is no way of proving this was work-related, but she had been lifting heavy weights the day before. Her request to do less strenuous work had not been passed on.

The company did not appeal against the Health and Safety Executive's recommendations. When inspectors revisited the factory they were satisfied that appropriate action had been taken.

Darshan's husband and children were proud of her. 'Asian ladies and men say good on you,' her daughter says, introducing a note of the vernacular into her translation.

A request to Darshan for examples of some of the things the women shouted on the picket line is met with a chuckle. For Terry O'Neill, though, it was no chuckling matter. 'Those on strike spoke English as good as you or me, and they swear.' What did they say to him? 'You bald-headed, fat little Irish bastard, I hope you rot in hell.' The new employees were taunted with the word 'scab' and the Punjabi term kutta, which means traitor and bitch or dog. Tame as these insults may sound, they are not something an Asian woman would normally ever say.

But that's not what Terry O'Neill thinks. 'You should work with them, start an argument with one who doesn't get her own way and they behave like animals, they go berserk, like fighting dervishes,' he says.

The strike was eventually called off by the GMB, who decided it was unwinnable - a cause of bitterness among Darshan and some of the women. The GMB disputes their claim that the union did not help as much as it could have. The union is acting for the women in some 50 cases against Burnsall going through industrial tribunals.

When Terry O'Neill heard the news about the Liberty award, his eyes bulged. 'They've won a prize? If that's what Liberty have lowered themselves to, it's not the organisation I believed it was. It's too ridiculous - that mob]' Jim agreed. Jim's wife, perched at her desk in the factory office, pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows.

Nor would the O'Neills agree with a comment from a Liberty spokeswoman that 'the case highlights the reality of the new economics where health and safety procedures are abandoned in the pursuit of profit'. Jim O'Neill said: 'They didn't have any justifiable complaints, so they had to make some up.' Terry has a theory about Asian people: 'There's no such thing as truth in their make-up, it's the same with Asian men and women, it's just part of their make- up, we've never understood it.'

But they still employ Asian people. 'We don't discriminate. If coloured people come along, we employ them. We've got a 100 per cent Asian workforce now, but they know we know that they don't tell the truth so they don't tell us lies, those that work for us.'

Darshan raised her eyebrows and laughed when this comment was repeated to her. With a philosophical sigh she chose not to rise to the bait, but folded her hands in her lap and said: 'We have all learnt a lot from this strike, I'm much stronger now.'

(Photographs omitted)

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