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Avtar Singh Jouhl and the Indian Workers Association

The first Indian Workers Association (IWA) was founded in Coventry in 1938, with other local branches springing up in the following years. To begin with, the IWAs were largely concerned with issues relating to India's independence. However, in the 1950s they gained a greater profile, with an increase in the number of Indians coming to Britain either in search of work, or to join family members already living here. The Birmingham branch of the IWA was started in 1958, by which time the various Associations had combined to become the Indian Worker's Association (Great Britain). After unifying these local groups, the IWA (GB) quickly became one of the most important Punjabi associations in Britain, with strong connections to the trade union movement and closely involved with both anti-racist and immigration legislation.

One of the IWA's most vocal activists in Birmingham during this period was Avtar Singh Jouhl, who became General Secretary of the Association in 1961. The archive has material deposited by Jouhl, including a series of transcripts from a number of interviews conducted with him. These provide a fascinating portrait of Jouhl's whole life, from his birth in the Punjab in 1938, through to his move to England twenty years later, and his subsequent political involvement.

On arriving in England, Jouhl first lived with his brother in Smethwick. On his third day in the country he started work at a local foundry, 'in which I worked 28 years, 29 years.' In common with the other immigrant workers, who made up a third of the 140-strong workforce, he wasn't given a skilled job to do. The hierarchy was clear - 'All labourers - migrant labour; all so-called skilled workers or moulders - white; all core makers - white; all fitters - white; all electricians - white; all operators - white; all dressers - white. It was a clear cut division - low pay, hard work, migrant labour.'

The nature of their jobs wasn't the only difference. On learning that the white moulder with whom he worked earned more than double his own wages, Jouhl vowed to join the union and gain their help in fighting his case. However, this was not an easy as it sounded; only after repeated requests to the Foundry Workers' Union, and support from the local branch of the Communist Party, were Jouhl and a fellow colleague able to join.

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