They are not making the “Emperor’s New Clothes” — the imaginary, expensive attire of a ruler in a thought provoking story by the Danish writer H.C. Anderson — the tailors in Jinnah Supermarket in Islamabad.
But the sight is worth watching as they sit bent over their sewing machines day-in and day-out, often for ten to twelve hours. The apprentices and younger tailors work with a master tailor who is usually also the owner of the business, and many times, they are all relatives.
At the end of the story, no one becomes rich from stitching clothes, not even the master tailor. In Jinnah Supermarket in Islamabad the house rents are high and a tailor can only afford a place under the stairs of his or another shop, or if the tailor is a good businessman and has some capital to invest, he may have a room selling clothes and dresses, doing ironing and maybe taking clothes for washing or dry-cleaning.
Every square foot in the room is utilised. Often, a loft is added on top of the room, not much more than one and quarter yard high, where several tailors can sit bent over their electric sewing machines, or stitching by hand, and some of them sleep there as well.
To get a new shalwar khamiz stitched is Jinnah Supermarket one has to pay the tailor in the range of 6-800 rupees, plus the cost of the material, which is from about a thousand rupees upward. The customers come from the well-to-do F-7 and E-7 sectors. Many of them have more money than they know how to spend, but they seem not to want to use it for a tailor sitting under the stairs between two shops, or on a shelf-loft above the shop.
“I bought a expensive suit a few years ago”, a customer says. “It is still good as new but now I have put on weight, so I need the trousers to be loosened. It will cost me less than a hundred rupees.” And the cost of the suit?
“It was about fifteen thousand when I bought it in Blue Area”, he replies.
“I am glad to do alterations and to make new clothes”, says Mohammad Yasir, 23, working with his friend in a little business in the main area of Jinnah Supermarket.
“If I work all the time, I make a few hundred rupees per day. I help my father pay the house rent in Chak Shahzad. It is still all right since I am young and not married.”
“I like to work in Jinnah Supermarket”, he adds. “My family moved from Karachi when I was little. Most of the time, I am stuck here under the stairs with my sewing machine from mid-morning till about ten at night. It is sometimes depressing because I see so many wealthy people in the Market. But their life is different from mine.”
“It is only when electricity goes off and it gets too dark to work, I can go for a stroll, or when I deliver some clothes to a shop. Much of what I do is for shops in the market. They pay even less than walk-in customers but we still like to work for them since they give us regular business. We always hope they don’t employ their own tailor”, Yasir hopes. “For alterations of the waist or length of a pair of trousers I get fifty rupees. I only do Western clothes.”
And then when the evening comes, Yasir goes with his brother on motor cycle to Chak Shahzad, where he lives with his family, and then mid-morning the next day it is back again to Jinnah Supermarket. I used to sleep upstairs in a makeshift shed on top of the building for many years”, he explains. “Many teenage tailors and other helpers in the shops still do that.”
Your back must be aching terribly at the end of the day after sitting bent over the sewing machine the whole day? The question I put to Imran, nicknamed Mana, who sits upstairs on the loft-shelf in a shop on first floor of King’s Arcade, another section of Jinnah Supermarket, where many tailoring shops are situated. “The house rent is lower here than in the main market”, explains Yasir, 31, who hails from Gujranawala but has moved permanently to Islamabad.
“It is true that it is hard on the back”, he says, “but there is no other way.”
“I came from Vehari near Multan three years ago, and I am glad to have this job”, Mana says.
“But I have no back problems”, the young, smart boy at the counter quips. He is Imran, nicknamed Mani, who at the age of 18 has already worked in the shop for four or five years. He is the only Christian in the shop. “Of course at your age you are healthy”, his boss Yasir says. “You have varied work, learning tailoring and helping with attending to customers, running errands and other things.”
“And I am very glad that I am also allowed to learn how to use the computer”, the boy adds.
The owner explains that he looks up new designs for women’s suits on the computer. They copy and alter them and make ready-to-wear suits. “It has helped us and we have expanded our business”, he explains.
The house rent is still reasonable in King’s Arcade. But Yasir worries what will happen when the big and modern block named Safa Gold Mall opens next door. “Maybe the owners will modernise our block, too, and we too will pay up-scale rents,” he fears.
As one walks home after a visit to the tailors in Jinnah Supermarket, leaving behind more than an estimated one hundred tailors, one bumps into Dr Shah M. Shaheen. He has his medical practice in the market.
“I have many tailors coming to me complaining about back ache which can develop into permanent spine and shoulder problems”, he says. “Tailors should use proper tables and chairs and change working positions as often as possible. They should not toil over the sewing machine for nine or ten hours, as many of them do. They should also do some sports and physical exercise. Most of the tailors in the market are young men, and that is the time to take care so that they can go on and enjoy good health into their forties, fifties and beyond”, Dr. Shaheen says.
And then one reflects on the low pay that tailors get even in a wealthy market like Jinnah Supermarket in the capital city. No tailor would earn as much as ten thousand rupees a month. Although the tailors spoken to did not complain, neither about their working conditions nor that the customers pay little for their work but one still felt that improvements should be made. Customers should be charged more; most of them can well afford it. And the owners of the larger shops and the plazas should also consider the working conditions and the income of the tailors. They also need the tailors’ services from time to time, and they need them as tenants.
Maybe the Capital Development Authority (CDA) could play a proactive role. Sometimes, they close stalls on the pavements, but it might be more important to help improve the working conditions of the tailors. Unfortunately, tailors and other workers don’t have their own organisations, and thus their voice and concerns are not easily heard. Poor and shy as they are, they don’t want to rug the boat either; they are just glad to be able to make a humble living.
Yet, Jinnah Supermarket would not be such a great market without the tailors to stitch and alter clothes, at top speed and quality. Perhaps, too, it would be great if there could be spaces for female tailors as well in the up-scale market. Wouldn’t that be a field to consider for the wealthier designer women in the capital? Not to take work from the men, but to add to the variety of the growing and active Jinnah Supermarket, one of the best and most pleasant shopping areas in the capital for locals and foreigners.