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Mohammed Rashid lost his fingers in an accident at work when he was 17.
Many people thought he would be out of work from then on – but Mohammed had other ideas.
He was determined to make a success of his life and refused to listen to people who told
him disabled people couldn’t work for a living.

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I grew up Pakistan. I was a village boy from a young age. A student. I came to the UK when I was 16, in June 1967. In July I started working at a foundry on Gardener Road. I worked at John King foundry. I worked for one year. They used to make chains for tanks. Iron things. My first wage in those days was actually half a wage. Because I was under 21, I was on a child’s wage, not a man’s wage. Men got double. The foreman in John King gave me the full wage. £23 they gave me, it should be £11. I had the wage on Friday and on Monday morning the foreman – they called him Mr Dougie – he said, “Mohammed, come here. We gave you the wrong wage! It’s alright, it’s our mistake, we will deduct £1 a week.”

 

A new foreman came. In those days, things were changing. On one machine, we’d have two people on each side. The new foreman, he said, “Two people is too many, there should be one person.” We didn’t like it. 3 of us left at that time. I started work in Idle Laundry in Morley. Then a friend came from Pakistan. He was living in Halifax. I went to see him one Sunday, on my day off. We started chatting about our wages. I said, “I get £11.” He said, “We get £14 here – easy job as well.” He was at a textile mill. He said, “Stay with me tonight, we’ll see what they say in the morning.” We went to see the foreman, he said, “Yes – you can start work now if you want!” In those days it was easy, there was plenty of work. Wherever you go, there is a lot of work. I put my notice in at the foundry.

I said, “I have no fingers on one hand.” He said, “Have you got 2 thumbs?” I pulled both my hands out and showed him. He said, “Come tomorrow.”

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One day the foreman said, “Clean the roller.” A 60- inch roller. The full-length of a roll of cloth. He said, “Change the thread.” I went up to pick up a loose thread in this big machine. I tried to pull this loose thread and my hand went in at the same time. Safety was not good in those days. When I screamed, the man on the other side ran to see me – he saw my hand in the machine, then he ran back to switch it off. If he had switched it off straight way it might have been just the tips of my fingers. They called the ambulance, gave me some liquid, took me to hospital. One finger, they said, “We couldn’t find it, it wasn’t there.” Another finger – it was really bad. They cut it off. They tried to save the 2 middle ones. They plastered it all up. I could see the tips but after a week I could see they were all black. They checked, they put a needle in – I couldn’t feel nothing. They cut them off. After a week they did a skin graft. They took skin from my legs. That was more painful than losing my fingers! Honestly! It was terrible. I was not eating much. They gave me 4 operations. There were 2 Chinese nurses who were nice to me. Nurse Li and Nurse Shu. They taught me the Chinese language! A few words, anyway. After 4 operations it was alright and they sent me home.
 
I was 17. I was in living in Halifax but my sister was in Leeds so I came to stay with her. I was just young. I’d only worked less than a year when it happened. I had to go back to Halifax three times a week to do exercises. The skin was completely black. Dark black. They said it would get better with time. The thumb was not moving. For one year I didn’t work. In them days everybody worked. Everybody! There was nobody out in the streets, they were all at work. I used to go from Beeston to Blackman Lane in LS7. I had a friend, he was the only one not at work – he had TB. I used to go every morning at 10am, have a cup of tea, have a talk, whatever. There was a Pakistani superstore there too so I could do shopping. Every single day. Then I got fed up. Waste of my life! What should I do? I couldn’t even tie my laces, I couldn’t tie the elastic in my Shalwar Kameez [the traditional dress worn by Asian men]. I annoyed myself. Eventually I could do it. I could do everything – it just took me slightly more time than normal. I said to myself, “Things happen. What can you do?” I tried to survive but I thought, “You can’t go through life like this.” I was only 17. I had to start work. There was a Rington’s Tea Factory on Lady Pit Lane. We used to live nearby. They said, “You need 2 hands.” All the time people said you need 2 hands. I went to another factory, they said the same. I used to go to the Labour Exchange. They send me to a few places. 3 or 4 places – no, you have a disability.

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I was reading the Evening Post one day. There were a few different jobs near York Road. A tailoring factory. So I went there. The foreman was a big man. I went to see him for an interview. He called me into the office,
I went in. I stood there. He said, “Sit down.” I said, “I want to say something before I sit. I want to work. End of story. Either you pay me or you don’t pay me. Still, 
I want to do something.” I would work for free. He asked me why. I said, “I have a disability.” He looked at me – I was standing there with my hands in my pockets. He said, “What’s the disability?” I said, “I have no fingers on one hand.” He said, “Have you got 2 thumbs?” I pulled both my hands out and showed him. He said, “Come tomorrow.”
 
I did get compensation for my hand. £6000. A lot of money in those days. You could buy a small house for £500. I was so young. I put the money in an account and never touched it. For 15, 20 years, I didn’t touch it. You see, in my mind, I’d been greedy. When I had the accident, I had gone to that mill for that extra £3 a week. Greedy. That money was the reason that my hand was gone. I was at the factory for one year. In 1971 I found a girl and I went to Pakistan. I saved money for a year to pay for the wedding – I still didn’t touch the compensation money! We went to see my father-in-law. I knew my wife from when she was born, I was 4 years older than her. I got married in 1972.

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Mohammed in 2021

After this I worked in Old Mill on Queen Street in town. Better money now, because I had experience. I was working fusing collars and cuffs on shirts. After a year, the foreman, Mr Jordan, came to me and said, “Mo, are you going to stay there all the time?” I said, “I have a disability, what else can I do?” I was happy to work! He said, “This is a girl’s job.” There were 6 cutters in the big room. He said, “I’ll put you on fusing cutting.” After 6 months he put me on lining cutting. Then another 6 months, “Go on trouser cutting now.” Then jacket cutting, then made-to- measure. He gave me all the experience I needed.

 

As well as struggling to find work, Mohammed also found it a challenge to get people to take him seriously in other matters – such as his desire to learn to drive.

 

I asked a few people if they could teach me to drive. My friend said it was a waste of money. “They’re not going to pass you!” One man, Farouki, I spoke to him, he was a driving instructor. I said, “What about driving?” He said, “Might as well try! Take one lesson, then I’ll decide.” We fixed a time and he picked me up. I took just nine lessons and he said, “You’re ready!” I only paid 50p a lesson. There was a test centre in the old days, where the big Tesco is now. We walked over to the office. I did my test. The man said, “You’ve passed. I have to take you inside, because of your disability. I have to ask the officer what to do.” He took me inside, said to his boss, “He’s a very nice driver, but he has no fingers on his left hand.” The officer said, “Just write it on his license.” And that was it! When I told my friend, the one who said it was a waste of money, he said, “It’s not possible!” He couldn’t believe it! I showed him. “It’s here, the license!” Nobody believed you could do anything in those days, if you had a disability.

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Mohammed in his textiles factory

After some years of working in different factories and mills, Mohammed found himself in the position of starting his own business. He met a Chinese man who was looking for a cutter to do work at home, for 5p a garment. Mohammed worked in the evenings and at weekends to earn a bit more money. But Mo reasoned that he could take a bit more control himself – and make more money.

 

I looked for a place. I thought, “If I get a place to work, I could start a factory.” I was looking at how the system worked. I always looked in the Evening Post. One advert was looking for a small textiles factory. For cutters. I phoned. This girl answered, she said, “Come see us - but find a place to work.” I went to see the man in charge. He just asked me a few questions. He said, “What can you do?” I said I was a cutter. He said, “You’re on. My investment, I’ll buy everything. Your job is cutting, I’ll give you 10p per garment.” This was 1984. In those days, manufacturing was very busy. I said, “No problem!” The first year I did 50,000 garments!

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A younger Mohammed in Pakistan 

Mohammed’s factory went from strength to strength and he employed several people. He bought a building from Leeds City Council to work in. However, in the 1990s, the UK manufacturing industry took a downturn.
 
The big firms went. Old Mill, Trutex, Burton – finished. There were 18,000 people working in Burton. Now there are no factories in Leeds – there used to be 30 or 40 places. All finished.
 
Eventually Mohammed decided to start his own second-hand shop. He bought furniture and sold it to local people in Beeston. The shop was very successful and eventually his son took over the business.
 
I finished about 5 years ago. I have arthritis, sometimes I find it hard to walk. But I have no problems with my hand. I’m used to it now. I had an artificial hand, but I only wore it once. Like a glove but you can’t move the fingers. You can’t work with it on – so what’s the point? In the early days my hand was a problem. I remember thinking, “Bloody hell, I’ve got a disability, what do I do?” But, as I say, things that take you one second, might take you two seconds. That’s all it is. Things take a bit longer. They all said I couldn’t work, couldn’t drive. But I passed first time!
 
Now I want peace. Sit on one side, watch the TV, have a cup of tea, that’s all I want. When you’re young you have ambition – go there, do this. Now, I just want to rest. I’m 70 now. My wife wants to go to Pakistan, every day she looks at flights, how much they are! But I’m happy here in Leeds.
 
Mohammed is part of the Asian Elders Group who meet at Hamara Centre in Beeston.
For more information about Hamara see www.hamara.org.uk or call 0113 277330

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