In Dubai workers' parallel world, a chance to sing

Written by Associated Press | Dubai | Updated: Oct 12 2013, 05:30am hrs
A classic Bollywood hit blasted across the DM Labour Camp from loudspeakers cranked to gut-rattling levels.

One of the contestants, who had changed out of his work overalls a few hours earlier, shimmied on the stage set up in the courtyard.

Everyone in the crowd of South Asian workers roared, the ones pressing up against the stage, others on the rooftops, and the guys piled on bunk beds watching the show through the windows of their tiny rooms. The spires of the Dubai skyline, where many of them work, shimmered on the horizon.

It's one of the biggest nights of the year for Dubai's workers: the finals of the annual labour camp song contest. It won't show up in Dubai's tourist brochures or be chatted about in the boutique cafes of its high-end malls.

This the parallel universe of the mostly South Asian migrant labourers who built the city-state but are consigned to a separated existence, ferried between their work sites and the camps where they live, teeming housing projects, tucked into industrial parks or on the desert outskirts.

"Welcome to Champ of the Camp!" cried local entertainer Shabana Chandramohan last night's extravaganza, in which 30 hopefuls warbled, crooned and belted out big Bollywood numbers for a share of 7,500 dirhams, or about USD 2,050, in prize money, a staggering sum for workers whose monthly salaries average about USD 300 a month.

Overall conditions for millions of labourers in the United Arab Emirates and across the other Gulf states have improved in recent years after pressure from international rights groups. Additional scrutiny is now coming from activists monitoring the construction of venues for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar's capital Doha.

But the unskilled workers drawn to the Gulf for steady pay also give up something in exchange. Their lives are often highly regulated by the companies that brought them to the Gulf. The workers generally occupy a narrow world bounded by work sites and the camps, which are mostly three- or four-story housing blocks resembling collections of rundown motels where workers can be packed up to 12 in a room.

A rare break from the routine comes in the form of Champ of the Camp. The contest combines quiz show speed, "American Idol" showmanship and movie trivia knowledge into a travelling roadshow that tours the dozens of camps around Dubai week by week for the workers to compete.

The contestants, in teams representing different camps, must first answer a question from the emcee to identify a Bollywood film and tune. Then they perform it to a karaoke soundtrack for the judges. The workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and other countries may not share the same language but are united in their love of Bollywood.