In India, the name Sonapur means ‘the city of gold' or ‘the city of the sleeping dead'.

The first is ironic for Dubai's Sonapur, as nobody really strikes gold here. The second tag of the sleeping city is quite apt, as the settlement was, back in the 1950s, a burial and cremation ground used mainly by expatriates.

The road to Sonapur leads past an old graveyard and a sprawling garbage dump spewing a pungent odour.

Inside Sonapur, there is a conspicuous absence of women. It is a man's world here, barring the white-clad nurses and the occasional female doctor.

Deira and Bur Dubai are the inhabitants' favourite hangouts. There they can find company to de-stress them and cyber cafes to talk to their families and friends using internet telephony facilities.

Over the past year, though, many Indian workers have bought phone cards which enable their family members to use their landlines to call them on their mobile phones via a special code. Generally, six workers pool resources to buy a mobile phone.

“The only entertainment we have is television, where we can catch Indian channels, and the only other diversion is our visits to the supermarkets on Friday when we buy foodstuff, soaps and cigarettes,'' Ravannan, a worker from Tamil Nadu in South India, said.

The labourers are up at 5am to wash and cook the food they will take to their worksites.

By 7am, they board the company buses to reach their respective sites about an hour later.

Come Friday, the supermarkets in the settlement are teeming with life, with almost the entire workforce turning up. Workers queue up at the ATMs outside to withdraw money to make their purchases.

Their faces light up with interest when they realise that there is a reporter in their midst. They look tired, start smiling as they say life is getting better thanks to measures recently initiated by the Dubai Municipality to improve their accommodation.

Last November, the municipality began a comprehensive campaign to assess the situation in different housing compounds to ensure they comply with health and safety regulations, and to prosecute those companies whose camps are found to be non-compliant.

According to Engineer Salem Mesmar, Director of the Public Health Department of the Municipality, 80 per cent of these camps adhere to the civic guidelines.

The municipality's Committee for Environmental and Labour Health, which Mesmar heads, has proposed an increase in the number of health inspectors assigned to evaluate workers' compounds in order to improve the efficiency of these inspections and enhance living conditions in these camps.

Sonapur is now home to an estimated 200,000 Asian workers, mostly from India followed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, with some from Nepal, the Philippines and Korea.

It is a strange mix of modern buildings replete with all facilities and improvised camps with poor drainage and sanitation, inhabited by thousands of illegal workers with expired work permits, resulting in a world of haves and have-nots.

At one such makeshift camp, Saeed, a bus driver from Pakistan, said lavatory drains have been overflowing for the past several months. He hopes the ‘arbab', the man in charge of the compound, will sort this out.

There are around 50 rooms at the camp, each housing 15 people. Around eight of these work the night shift.

They pay Dh2,500 per room, where they can also take their daily bath, watch cable television and listen to the radio.

The rent collector, who asked not to be named, said water and electricity charges at the camp amount to around Dh40,000 per month.

There were about ten such camps in Sonapur last year, but most of them have been closed down over the past five months following periodic inspections by civic squads.

The inhabitants of those camps have moved to nearby accommodation. One camp has sprung up again after complying with hygiene and safety standards.

Rows of clotheslines can be seen through a partially opened gate at the relocated site, but inmates are wary of visitors, particularly photographers.

Sonapur has so far been an oasis of peace, barring sporadic scuffles and arguments.

The workers are generally well behaved and pious, attending Friday prayers in the mosques and roadsides outside labour compounds in large numbers.

Real estate companies are doing good business, with labour accommodations in demand at Sonapur from big companies and leading hotels, inquiries revealed.

With more residential buildings coming up for workers in Sonapur, its population is expected to rise. With its ongoing construction, Sonapur is probably set to become the largest camp of workers in the world.

Health Problems

Battling skin allergies from exposure to cement, labourers walk into medical clinics set up by private companies to take shots to alleviate their distress.

But the problems recur and they have to travel to Deira to find steroid creams to ease their nagging allergies, often spending at least Dh200 from their hard-earned wages on the specialists, a pharmacist revealed on condition of anonymity. Some doctors don't charge them — a small mercy.

“Actually, if they used gloves while handling cement, they would be less prone to allergies, but then they don't get a good grip,'' one doctor said.

“Besides, some inhalation of cement and dust cannot be eliminated.''

Working beyond their scheduled timings also lead many workers to miss their regular meals and develop gastric and acidity problems.