UAE is truly a land of wonders. The transformation of desert to metropolis is a marvel on its own. This transformation which took place and is taking place as I compose this article did not and does not happen unaided. There is a vast labour force working behind the scenes and around the clock consisting mainly of immigrant workers. Lost in the awe of these magnificent structures and landscapes most people are unaware of the blood, sweat and tears poured by these people to achieve such splendor, however, this is not about them as not all work in the field of construction, this is about a form of modern day slavery most immigrant workers go through taking place at present – Passport Retention by the Employers
The Passport is an official document certifying the holders’ identity and citizenship allowing them to travel abroad under its protection. Therefore it is a personal document that the holder should keep possession of. The retention of passports is a common practice among most companies in the UAE. This is done against the wishes of the employee. Employees do not question or retaliate in fear of losing their jobs. The majority of the immigrant work forces here are the low income workers who have spent a lot beyond their means to find employment abroad. Their main aim is to earn, pay off their debts in their home countries and to provide for their families. If they lose their jobs here they have to go back to their own country where they have nothing to look forward to. Most of them do not know their labour rights.
The main excuse made by employers when retaining passports is that they are safe guarding the employees passports, to prevent employees from making off with company property and absconding. Employees are told that the company will hand over their passports whenever required by the employee. The passport is released with prior written request and approval most of the time and takes a couple of days depending on company procedure. The question is why all this procedure to get one’s own passport. Employers use passport retention as a method to retain the labour force within the company.
Upon interviewing a former employee working in Abu Dhabi for a popular retail company, when she requested for her passport it had taken them five working days to return it to her. After her travel she refused to hand over her passport as it is her legal right to keep it, she was black mailed by her manager stating that she would be transferred to Dubai. Afraid of this when she returned her passport she found out they were going to transfer her anyway. She refused her transfer and was thereafter terminated and was imposed a six month work ban. She had to return to her country and her passport was not handed over to her until one hour prior to her departure.
Under the UAE Federal Law retaining ones passport is illegal. It is an offence that carries a three year jail sentencing or a fine of up to AED 20,000/-. On the 25th of December 2002, a decree was issued by the Ministry of Interior regarding the Retention of Passports. The decree ( document shown in Arabic) states
“As the passport is a personal document that and as the law obliges its owner to keep and show when required by the governmental authorities, it is not allowed for any party to detain the passport except by the official parties with a judicial order and according to the law. Consequently it will be considered as an illegal action to detain the passport in UAE except by the governmental parties. So please announce this to all of your parties. In case of retaining passports there will be a suitable punishment by the law of UAE”.
(Document & translation courtesy of http://www.impacttlimited.com/2009/07/22/give-me-back-my-passport/)
When inquired about passport retention from the Ministry of Labour via e-mail and contact center I was informed that passport issues are not handled by the Ministry of Labour and that the Department of Immigration should be contacted with regard to this matter. However common sense shows the retention of passports does not concern the Department of Immigration as it is the employer who is holding your passport and employer – employee issues are handled by the Ministry of Labour. Furthermore I was made to understand that it is a mutual agreement between the employer and employee to retain the passport. I stressed furthermore that the retention of a passport is never a mutual agreement between the two parties as employees are emotionally black mailed and bullied in to handing it over. Of course it took me a while to realize that it was pointless arguing over this matter with the customer service agents as their passports were most probably retained by the ministry as well. Mentioning the decree to them was pointless also as I understood they were unaware of it. It should be made to understand that there is no written statement from the Ministry of Labour or anywhere allowing employers to withhold employee passports and that there is a decree from the Ministry of Interior prohibiting this act.
The UAE is signed up to the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour, under which the retention of workers’ passports is a violation of the agreement. Companies should resort to other methods in order to retain their workforce without violating human and labour rights. By retaining passports employees are made to feel like slaves or property of a company.
The decree issued in 2002 by the Ministry of Interior should be made public and the relevant authorities should start enforcing it. Most importantly workers should be made aware of this law. When surfing the web I found many articles stating that this practice is illegal. I also found that after employees going to labour court over the issue has been allowed to keep their passports, but unfortunately have been terminated thereafter.
hen referring to the articles on the given links, we know that the Ministry of Labour is aware of this decree, but for a reason, maybe political chooses not to act against employers breaking the law. I believe that everyone should be made aware of this decree and should voice out against passport retention, more voices raised, more the impact made.