SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates – A homeless man picks through a sandy rubbish heap, plucking things from among the food wrappers and plastic water bottles.
Another man, dressed in a mechanic’s uniform, approaches him carrying a pair of new shoes, just purchased from a shop nearby. The homeless man discards his broken, dusty sandals immediately, clasping his hands in front of him in what looks like a prayer. The mechanic extends a hand for him to shake. If you look closely, you can see that the mechanic is just as dusty, and his own shoes are falling apart.
The video is uploaded to TikTok. It gets 10,000 likes in three hours, and 90,000 in a day. To many, it may seem gratuitous.
But Jassi Mahey is attention-seeking with a purpose: to help whoever he can, with what he has, even if that isn’t a whole lot. He’s a 36-year-old Indian labourer in the United Arab Emirates, who lives on $40 (about £28) per week. But he’s also something of a TikTok celebrity – a titan in Punjabi spheres, known for his quirky skits and strongman antics.
In a country where a social media following pays dividends, the UAE is not short of influencers. A few thousand followers are a gateway to free meals, free products and free trips – exchanged for brand shoutouts and tags.
While Instagram has long reigned supreme here, TikTok is now the next big thing – spawning bona-fide celebrities such as Jumana Khan and Pinky Francis, who routinely show off their privileged lives in one of the glitziest cities in the world.
But the platform has also given rise to a very different subculture, centred on migrant workers from countries such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines, who travel to the Arab nation to provide for families back home.
The Gulf states employ the highest proportion of migrant workers in the world, with most working in the tourism, hospitality and construction sectors.
But despite making up more than half the UAE’s workforce, blue collar workers are rendered largely invisible, often residing in poor conditions in labour camps and earning a fraction of their Western counterparts.
Without a voice in everyday society, many have sought a virtual one instead. They have hundreds of thousands of views between them, and their audiences are growing.
Every morning, Mahey rises from his bunk bed in the room he shares with five other men, and looks to his bedside table. There sits a small wooden toy car and a photo frame full of smiling pictures of his sons – aged one and eight – who live in India with his wife. He’s lived away from them for 13 years. He prays for them, and for himself.
Next door, there is a bathroom and a gas stove where he cooks breakfast. At 8AM it’s time for work. He has no commute, though, because he’s already there.
Mahey has lived and worked at a workshop on the outskirts of Sharjah, the third-most populous city in the UAE, since he moved here to provide for his family.
His days are long: anywhere from 12 hours to 24 hours if there are a lot of trucks to be tended to. He has no fixed days off. He earns Dh2,100 (about £410) per month and always sends Dh1500 of that home. There is no minimum wage for expats here.
Expat remittances from the UAE amounted to Dh165 billion ($45 billion) in 2019. India was the largest recipient. At 3.5 million people, India accounts for the UAE’s largest expat community, with the majority blue collar workers.
Mahey tries to save whatever’s left over at the end of the month after his expenses, to one day bring his family over from India.
It’s ironic, then, that he got into TikTok because relatives at home were complaining that he wasn’t sending enough money. So he started making videos showing him at work, toiling away on trucks.
Now boasting 42,500 followers and a string of viral videos, Mahey has made a name for himself for the videos of him throwing huge tyres around his workshop, or skits with colleagues. But more recently, as his audience grew, he’s focused on grassroots philanthropy. A recent video highlighted the plight of a homeless man with a painful skin condition in Dubai’s Al Quoz town. A viewer donated money so he could be treated in hospital.
Sitting in the office of his mechanic’s workshop, surrounded by colleagues helping him translate from Punjabi to English, VICE World News asks Mahey if he aims to make money from TikTok. He, and the three colleagues seated around him, respond “no” simultaneously. When asked why he does it then, Mahey responds in Punjabi. His friend translates simply: “to help people”.
About 40 miles away, inside the Dubai Mall, one of the world’s most opulent shopping locations, Renato “Renzy” Kahulugan Jr, has just started work for the day at British toy retailer Hamley’s. Renzy loves his job; he’s worked there for four years, ever since he moved here from the Philippines. He loves it so much that it’s formed the backdrop of his burgeoning TikTok career.
Renzy is known on TikTok for his choreographed dances, performed on his own or with a workmate, as row upon row of glass eyes watch on behind him.
“Growing up I didn't experience playing with cool toys,” Renzy tells VICE World News, gesturing around what he calls the “pink room”, filled with plastic dolls and nail art kits. “I think that's also the reason why I love this job. So I can experience what I didn’t experience when I was young.”
The 28-year-old is softly spoken and matter-of-fact as he recounts life growing up in a poor family with four siblings in Mindanao; his father a bus driver, his mother a housewife with a part-time job. Now grown up, the children provide the entire income for the household.
“When we graduated from college we told them to stop working, because it's our turn to give back. They have already sacrificed.”
But as the conversation turns to TikTok, Renzy speaks with a spark in his eye.
“I watch a lot of Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” he says, before recounting the beginning of his TikTok career: a year ago, when a colleague filmed him unawares, dancing alone in the store. It went viral.
Renzy’s toy shop dancing antics have since garnered him tens of thousands of viewers. Parents bring their children into the store to see him. He works ten hours per day, five days a week. His managers let him dance and film while he’s on the clock, because it brings in extra customers.
“At first it was hard for me because I don’t have good social skills. So I didn’t know how to interact with my followers. I’m so shy. I don't know what to say. But then, I am so thankful, because this also helped me improve my social skills.”
Renzy lives in a five-bedroom apartment with 15 other people. He shares a room with his 30-year-old brother and his landlord’s daughter.
“It's difficult sometimes. But you just need to adjust and to live within your means. Because you're here for work and to save for your future and for your family.”
Of the Dh2,700 he earns per month, he sends Dh500 home. It used to be more, but his friends urged him to save for himself. He hopes TikTok could be a revenue stream for him one day through brand collaborations.
Any shyness melts away as he poses for a picture, leaning against a nail art display, arms crossed. He directs the impromptu shoot to three other locations around the store.
He likes performing, he says. He wants to move to Europe one day. And after that, he wants to move back to Mindanao and build a house with a big vegetable garden, for him and his family.
People from the Philippines make up the third largest expat community in the UAE – about 750,000 people – with many working in low-paid jobs
Kim Paysan Infante arrived searching for a better life. Now 34, he’s lived in Sharjah for nine years and held various jobs. But it hasn’t gone exactly as planned.
His previous job, at a fast food restaurant chain, left him broken. He was overworked, he says, and exhausted. He spent his savings during a year of unemployment, doing nothing, just recuperating.
Two years ago, he took a job at an Asian supermarket in Sharjah. That’s where he started his TikTok account, full of skits about Asian foodstuffs, or K-pop or Korean culture, and quickly amassed 16,400 followers. He blushes, and looks down, at the mention of “celebrity”.
“I thought trying TikTok was too late for me because I’m in my thirties... so I downloaded it for fun. But one of my videos went viral last year and now I am really enjoying it, it helps my boss’s business too.”
Infante has no family in the UAE, and isn’t close to his family at home, though he still sends them a portion of his Dh3,000 salary each month. When asked about his siblings, he says, quietly, “[my parents] have another family”.
For Dh600 per month, he lives in a three bedroom apartment with ten other people from the Philippines. He works six days a week, 10AM to midnight, with a two-hour break. He supplements this with a second job baking cakes. Along with the three hours he spends on TikTok per day, it only leaves about fours hours for sleep.
He admits he’s too shy to film any videos around co-workers, and most of his TikToks are filmed when he’s alone in the store or at home.
That shyness doesn’t translate on camera. There are K-pop fan videos, a Ramadan skit and one of him being chased by chopsticks – all with his face front and centre. But a recent video, showing him sitting alone on the floor, features the caption: “When you cleaned the entire store, but you’re the only trash that’s left.” It’s hard to tell if he’s laughing because of the face mask.
But Infante insists that, with all the stresses in his life, it is TikTok of all things that keeps his mental health in check.
“Like now, when I'm feeling stressed or depressed, I'm just focusing on my Tiktok,” he says.
“The people uplift me.”