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How Asian Workers Fought Racism on the Railways

In 1990, Asian rail workers who applied for positions as drivers on British Rail found themselves frozen out in favour of less-qualified white colleagues. They fought back – and won a landmark battle.

This year, the Paddington branch of the RMT lost three of its longest serving members. Our former branch chairman Sundershan Lal Rangra – known as Sam to his colleagues – retired in June and was tragically taken by cancer within a month. Rashmin Mehta, a ticket office clerk on the same line as Sam, retired in April and passed away from Covid-19 in July. Nirmal “Nellie” Singh Sandhu, a train driver on the Great Western Railway, died from cancer in July.

All three men were of Indian origin. All were born in the 1940s and ’50s, and all arrived in Britain in the ’60s and ’70s. They represented a generation of Indians born in the dying age of colonialism and raised to new horizons by the era of independence. Like many Indians of their generation, they were highly aspirational. The greatly improved access to education and unprecedented opportunities for social mobility brought about by a newly independent India shaped their lives.

And while the Indian diaspora thrives across the world, many Indians of their generation particularly wished to experience life in the country which had once claimed them as subjects of its Empire, and for which their parents had fought in two world wars. Despite the cruelties of the British Raj, there was (and remains, to some degree) a popular conception among Indians that England is a country defined by its sophistication and opportunities. This, however, was not the England they found on their arrival.

Nellie was born in 1952 in the rural Punjab. After earning two degrees – in human biology and zoology and botany – he began his career as the headmaster of a village school. After arriving in London at the age of 25, he quickly encountered almost insurmountable barriers in pursuing a career in education. So, like Sam Rangra, Rashmin Mehta and many others, he took up a job on British Rail.

Despite providing real opportunities for migrant workers – people who, like Nellie, were often highly skilled in their own right – British Rail was by no means free from the racism of its time. Neither, it must be said, was the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). However, through the militant efforts of an increasingly diverse membership, the union played a central role in breaking the colour bars that existed in the industry.

In the late sixties, Asquith Xavier – a Marylebone guard of Caribbean origin – had campaigned alongside Jim Prendergast, his NUR representative and Irish immigrant, against the barriers which stopped the promotion of black workers. Their pioneering efforts put the issue of the systemic racism faced by black workers in the national spotlight, and their industrial struggle – alongside the political battle being fought by the Labour government – led to the passage of racial equality legislation.

Nellie began his career as one of a group of freight and passenger guards at Southall rail depot, alongside many other Asian workers. When the depot closed in 1986, they were made redundant. But unlike in today’s world of casualised workplaces, assertive trade unions operated a system of national collective bargaining with British Rail, who were pressured into creating redeployment opportunities for laid-off workers. For example, the retirement of Britain’s steam locomotives in the 1960s created a surfeit of redundant firemen, who – thanks to union efforts – were redeployed as guards, and formed the recruitment pool for the new generation of diesel train drivers.

In 1982, British Rail proposed that freight service guards be removed in favour of Driver Only Operations (DOO). However, when freight guards proposed national strike action, they found themselves isolated and without support from passenger guards. Many of the latter believed that no such automation could ever impact them but a negotiated system was put in place similar to that being brought in during the transition to diesel, in which all guards would form the hiring pool for new drivers. 

So in 1986, after Southall depot workers were made redundant, the guards could transfer to Paddington Station and, in theory, apply to become drivers. Four years later, 12 Paddington guards of Indian origin – including Nellie – did just that. 

By a quirk of history, the aptitude testing centre for drivers was in Marylebone, Asquith Xavier’s old workplace. As they arrived, some Paddington guards like Sheik Kharas noticed that many white guards had letters of recommendation from their managers, which were handed directly to assessors. Between themselves, the Asian guards wondered why none of them had been offered any such letter. But 1990 wasn’t 1960, and the assumption was that the explicit racism experienced by a previous generation was a thing of the past.

The Asian guards took the test in good faith. However, when they were all failed – despite many of them being senior to numerous white guards who had passed – they began to suspect direct discrimination had taken place. They took the issue to their union, which had at this point become the RMT, but found that the union leadership resisted pushing the case. Union leaders cited the presence of black drivers at Birmingham depots as proof that racial barriers no longer existed within the driver recruitment process.

After being fobbed off by their union, Nellie, Sheik and ten other workers turned to the Indian Workers’ Association in Southall for help. The organisation referred the case to the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), who met with the guards and subsequently agreed to begin legal action on their behalf. 

This caused massive embarrassment within the RMT, which had been seen to fail a militant section of its membership. The union’s Assistant General Secretary Vernon Hince and National Executive Committee member Tony Donaghy (a veteran of the campaigns against the colour bar in the sixties) arrived at a Paddington RMT branch meeting to personally apologise to the guards and request that the union be allowed to take the case back up. The guards refused the offer, but accepted a proposal that the union should be allowed to meet 50% of the legal fees incurred by the CRE in pursuing the case.

The legal challenge forced British Rail to make a complete about-turn. The guards’ assessment was reopened, and it was clear that they had been deliberately passed over. In an attempt at saving face, British Rail board chairman Bob Reed attempted to blame the situation on language issues, and an offer was made to the guards to retake the test with the option of sitting practice papers to familiarise themselves with the technical English they would encounter on the job. Six of them re-sat the test and four – including Nellie, Sheik and Sheik’s brother Aziz – passed. In 1992, after a long struggle, they qualified as drivers.

Like Asquith Xavier, who was a trailblazer for black British workers in the 1960s, the Paddington Guards broke down barriers for Asian workers in the 1980s and ’90s. Nellie’s son Navdeep followed his father’s academic footsteps and is now an NHS doctor. Navdeep recalls:

Ultimately, he knew if he couldn’t take up being a teacher, then he would work to progress where he was in the railways. My Dad worked extremely hard and his biggest goal in life was to ensure his children got educated, stood on their own two feet and passed the barriers that were in place when he came to the country. Overall, when he looked back over his life in his last few days, he was able to look at everything he’d achieved and everything his family had achieved with satisfaction. That put him at peace.

We count ourselves fortunate to still work alongside Sheik Kharas, who remains a figure of inspiration and leadership, and we remember our brothers Sam Rangra, Rashmin Mehta and Nellie Singh Sandhu with gratitude and respect. 

They were of a generation who fought for progress for themselves and for all of society. They worked hard and overcame incredible resistance, serving the railways until the very last months of their lives. Those of us that follow them will have new struggles to face, but we stand on the shoulders of giants as we face them.