DUBAI // The first thing that hits you is the overpowering smell of lemon bleach. As I wander around Arabtec's Jebel Ali Camp One, a labour camp deep inside Dubai's industrial area, the cleaners, in their masks and uniforms, are everywhere, keeping the camp fresh and scrubbed. And well they might - there are weekly prizes of trips away for the ones who keep their patches cleanest.
I've been invited here by Arabtec Construction to look round three of its 20 camps along with other journalists. The tour is part of the company's effort to answer claims made in a BBC documentary last week that its camps were "overcrowded" and "overflowing with sewage water". Camp One appears to be neither. Relatively small by Dubai standards, it currently houses 494 labourers, some way off its capacity of 600. Mohammed Mahmoud, the camp's manager, tells me it was full until a month ago, when a project was cancelled and more than 100 staff were sent off to Saudi Arabia to work on other projects.
The camp's residents earn anything from Dh600 a month for unskilled labourers to Dh4,000 a month for Filipino engineers. "We have labourers from all over the Arab world," Mr Mahmoud tells me, "as well as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China." Most of them live four to a room, but on the top floor of the three and four-storey buildings there are rooms that just two people share. The camp seems well-tended. The buildings are painted in bright patterns, and every non-concreted area is planted with shrubs and flowers.
In the kitchen area, more than 30 rusted hobs rest on wooden tables; they are connected to red gas cannisters outside. Stray kittens wander around the kitchen - a minor bone of contention, it seems. "We tell labourers not to feed them, so that they go away. But they like them around," says Laxmi Montgomery, Arabtec's welfare officer, with an air of resignation. As I visit, in the early afternoon, the camp is empty bar the ever-shuffling cleaners. The night shift are resting; the morning and afternoon shifts are out at work.
So there is no one in the mess hall, a cool, white room with a few large flat-screen televisions playing to themselves, and a dozen tables with chairs scattered around. As well as television, there are regular cricket matches and a weekly pop competition. There is a medical room with resident doctor, a computer room where workers can use the internet, and an ATM machine. Unlike some other camps, there is no curfew here. "There a lot of senior workers here," explains Ms Montgomery, "so they are allowed to come and go as they please."
And the toilets are as lemony fresh as the kitchen. Things are a little more spartan at the Jebel Ali Camp Two. It's a much bigger camp, its four large blue and white blocks decorated with abstract figures and educational diagrams, housing 4,200 labourers in 510 rooms. That's a little over eight to a room, although following a Ministry of Labour inspection Arabtec says it will cut the number to six per room. (The same inspection won the company a Dh1,500 fine, for a single cigarette butt found on the floor.)