The Broom Cupboard
Radio broadcaster Shemiza Rashid talks to us about the broom cupboard, backstreet salwar kameez industry at the heart of the Muslim community here in Britain.
Walking through a dingy alley, I finally made my way towards an unkempt mangled garden. I had to check whether the address my friend gave me was correct. It was a last minute emergency and I was running out of options. I skeptically paced forward and pushed open the door to be welcomed by a waft of damp air.
I followed the smell of stagnant smoke and the sound of raised voices towards the uncarpeted steps to the first floor. The voices of what sounded like two women got louder as I got closer to the room. Just as I stepped into the room a bright green bag came hurling from the direction of the arguing voices across the other side and nearly smacked me in the head.
The women apologised profusely. I wasn’t certain as to whether it was because I heard them swearing and shouting about no holiday and pay at somebody else in the room.
A little shocked, I wondered if I should cut my losses and run or if I should stick to the mission. I decided to stay… it was a major fashion emergency!!
Is Mr. Khan around? I asked.
Scanning across the dimly lit cold room in order to find the owner, drowned by the whizzing of an industrial sewing machine and hidden amongst a mountain of Asda , Tesco and Aldi bags I heard a muffled voice which was a little difficult to hear if I’m honest.
Finally, I had found the owner; a slim framed man with heavy dark circles under his eyes in a tatty traditional Salwaar kameez . Without looking up at me he continued to sew at what seemed like a 100 miles per second, manically feeding the fabric through the machine as if his life depended on it.
Mr. Khan: ‘How can I help?’
Me: ‘I need a suit made. Can you do it for me in a few days? ‘
Mr. Khan: ‘‘Sorry sister too many clothes at the moment!!”
The green bag lady however thought otherwise: “yes, he can don’t worry”.
Sadness eluded Mr. Khan’s face. It was obvious he would be working another long shift. Longer than the long one he had already expected.
Suddenly something hit home and I decided to walk out with the fabric…
Welcome to the world of the 24 hour Bespoke Asian tailor, available to sew your beautiful loose fabric any time of any week. Festivals, weddings for every and any occasion, You will find them in plenty across the town, hidden away in someone’s garden extension, working solo or working under the supervision of exuberant clothing boutiques. If you find one that works for less and tailors like the gents on Saville Row; gold dust.
The 24 hour Asian bespoke tailor is all too familiar with working way below the minimum wage, in working conditions unfit for any, clocking up 24 hours a day and with no worker’s rights, right here in Britain. To make things worse, many are working on dubious work visas so are putty in the hands of those taking advantage of their skills.
In our garment preparations for Eid (a very popular period for tailors) a lot of price quibbling takes place. Ironically is this not a period when we should be more conscious on how we spend, trade and exchange our time and efforts?
I’ve often heard … Oh it’s fine they are earning more here than they would do abroad – a petty justification for short changing them much like the one used for garment workers abroad.
Just because they are earning more in the UK than they are earning in Pakistan, India or Bangladesh – does that make it okay?
As we mark the anniversary of the factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh and petition western retail fashion giants for fair workers’ rights, I believe we also need to think about the manufacturing of not only our western clothing but also our traditional clothing here in Britain, clothing more specifically across local communities, reviewing those we are in direct contact with.
Are we paying the tailors fairly? Even on the shop floor, are sales assistants working in Asian clothes boutiques being paid fair wages? Ethics are across the board.
As a child, one of my strongest memories from the age of 7 was helping my mother at home construct a padded zipped coat from start to finish. It would take her 2 hours to fully complete the garment and she would be paid 50 pence per coat for her trouble. She was employed by an Asian owned factory that outsourced garments to vulnerable Asian women on benefits who were desperate for work. These same coats were then sold in major high street stores for over £20 pounds
I watched her work 6am to midnight to complete her assigned batch, a whole family effort .
I look back and realise now that she was a victim of unfair labour.
That was 30 years ago. Thankfully the factory she worked for was held accountable and was featured in an undercover documentary. Back then, as a family we were not aware that this was wrong and the sad reality is that many employees in similar situations are also unaware that they are being treated unfairly .
Sweat factories are not a third world phenomena and are still common place in the UK. In 2010 a Guardian article identified that a Leicester factory housed employees supplying to established high street brands. The employees were working in abysmal conditions similar to factories in the third world. They continued to work on long shifts for minimum wages because they lacked qualifications, couldn’t speak English or were visiting overseas students so were working illegally.
Where there is a demand there will be supply, and employers will take advantage of this, to keep their businesses running and help keep costs down. With benefit cuts and caps and increasing migrant workers, the demand for work could incite a revival of sweat factories right here in Britain. As we are marking the anniversary of the Bangladeshi factory collapse, I would like to see a revolution on workers’ rights in all fields of garment manufacturing and selling both abroad and here in the UK, particularly from the Muslim community. As Muslims we have a duty upon us, to not only think, but work and trade ethically.
Shemiza Rashid, is a teacher of fashion and retail, an ethical campaign ambassador, Radio broadcaster and author of the Diary of the Wimpy Mom – a blog where she allows readers to explore her adventures as a mother of six.