Employers keeping workers' passports in Dubai and UAE
Passport retention against the law in UAE - companies, sponsors, government departments, employers keeping employees' and workers' passports in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and UAE. Is it legal or illegal in the UAE?
Employers keeping passports in UAE
- Your passport is usually the property of the government that issued it (check the small print in your passport, it will usually have words to that effect), and you are entrusted with its safekeeping.
- You are permitted and expected to give your passport to various authorities around the world (customs and border control officials, embassies and consulates of other countries, police departments, etc) if the situation requires it.
- Many or all countries have words in their passports to the effect of you are not supposed to hand it over to any unauthorised bodies. Your employer is an unauthorised body in most circumstances.
- With regard to working for an employer in the UAE, you are permitted to hand over your passport so that they can get a residence visa stamped in it for you, and they should return your passport to you after stamping. You are responsible for the safekeeping of your passport, not your employer.
- However, it is very common for employers in the UAE to attempt to keep their employees' passports, despite many comments from various officials that say the practice is illegal. The irony is that sometimes the very same newspapers that report this information, and the government departments where such comments come from, have a habit of keeping their own employees' passports anyway.
- We haven't found a reference in the UAE Labour Law that specifically says it is illegal for an employee to keep your passport against your will, but that's probably because it shouldn't be necessary for the law to have such a reference. After all, the UAE Labour Law doesn't say that it is illegal for employers to lock their employees in a broom cupboard every night after finishing work even though the practice is obviously illegal (and occasionally stories emerge of something like that happening).
- The UAE Labour Law does have references to abusive practices by employers as grounds for complaint, and/or resignation without notice. Common sense would say that an employer keeping the passport of an employee fits into such a category, however, common sense is not a synonym for the law, and/or what employers do in the UAE.
- If you choose to give your passport to your employer for safekeeping, then there's nothing illegal about that as far as we know. But check with your embassy or consulate to confirm you are permitted to do that.
Why do employers in the UAE want to keep employee passports?
- Usually the party line or official comment from employers is because they think it's safer than employees looking after their own property - after all, you might lose your passport, or forget to take it out of your trousers when you wash them, or feed it to the dog, or whatever.
- What is apparent to many workers though, is that companies want to have a degree of control over them, and holding on to passports is a way of forcing employees to stay in the country, to make it difficult for them to abscond ("do a runner"), and generally to reinforce the authoritative nature of the employer-employee relationship that is prevalent in the UAE.
- Take comments about illegal passport retention with a pinch of salt. One of the downsides of wasta in the UAE is that employers usually have more wasta than their workers, and many of them have enough wasta to prevail over whatever is legal with respect to passports, or they threaten and intimidate workers sufficiently to make them nervous about trying to reclaim their passports.
Comments in the press about employers in Dubai and UAE keeping passports
- "Holding the employee’s passport from him is illegal. If such action occurs, the staff can approach the nearest police station and the company will have to hand over the passport there. Your company has no right to hold your passport. Retaining employees’ passports by employers is against the UAE Labour Law." - Nasser Ahmed Al Osaiba, Emirati Partner and Lawyer at Global Advocates and Legal Consultants (Khaleej Times 21 May 2012). Although in theory this sounds valid (after all, you could argue that someone holding on to your passport without authorisation is perhaps committing an act of theft), there are mixed reports about how effective it really is in reality to go to a police station to get your passport returned.
- "The laws in UAE do not entitle the employer to keep the employee's passport for whatever reason and the passport shall not be submitted to anyone unless upon order of Public Prosecution or court only." - Advocate Mohammad Ebrahim Al Shaiba of Al Bahar Advocates and Legal Consultants in response to a question to "Ask The Law" (Gulf News 09 May 2010). This type of question and answer is frequently seen in the UAE press, other media sources and online forums and websites.
- Forty-four percent of respondents said their companies "demand" employees hand in their passports, while 6 percent said their companies hold the passports of junior to mid-level staff. - Maktob Business 09 November 2009
- Musthafa Zafeer, founder and managing partner of Dubai-based law firm Musthafa & Almana, said a passport confiscation case costs between 5,000 dirhams ($1,360) and 10,000 dirhams, but described it as a "simple case". - Maktoob Business 03 November 2009
- "It’s illegal, ... The government will not tolerate companies that withhold passports," - Yousuf Abdulghani (Abdul Ghani?), Executive Director of Policies and Strategy at the UAE Ministry of Labour (Arabian Business 30 April 2009).
- Certain insurance companies required employers to withhold passports under insurance schemes to protect firms against workers who abscond, - Arabian Business reporting on comments from Alex Zalami, senior advisor for the UAE Ministry of Labour (which does not sound like a legally justifiable reason to our untrained and unqualified understanding of the law).
- "This is not a question of jail, nobody forces any of the men to work. ... The issue of keeping the passports is an issue that is important for us, ... it is better for us to have the passports from a security point of view. If a labourer wants to leave, he can leave any day he wants." - Riad Kamal, CEO of Arabtec Holding (a Dubai based construction company which helped build the Burj Dubai), reported by Arabian Business 09 April 2009.
- "Amnesty seekers can file a complaint at the labour relations department if their previous sponsor demands money in exchange for the passport. The ministry will summon the employer and ask him to submit the passport. If he refuses strong measures will be taken," - Humaid Bin Deemas, Assistant Undersecretary at the UAE Ministry of Labour, during an amnesty period, referring to employers wanting money in exchange for returning passports to employees who had left their companies (Gulf News 15 July 2007).
- "Retaining workers' passports amounts to forcible work in violation of the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour, to which the UAE is a signatory." - Aref Mirza, Director of the UAE Ministry of Labour Legal Department (Gulf News 13 June 2006).
- "Employers who fail to give workers their passports on request are in breach of trust. The offence carries a prison term of up to three years or a fine of up to Dh20,000," - Gulf News report of comment from an unnamed legal consultant (13 June 2006).
- However, all ministries, including those of Finance and Industry, Interior, Labour and Social Affairs are retaining passports of their expatriate staff. - Gulf News 13 June 2006.
- "A passport is a personal document that proves the identity of the holder, and the laws stipulate that the bearer must keep his or her passport and present it to the authorities concerned upon their request," Lieutenant General Sheikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Interior, UAE ministry circular 25 December, 2002.
What to do if your employer demands to keep your passport or does not return it upon request?
If you read this before you sign a contract in the UAE, make a point of asking your future employer what their policy is on retention of employee passports. If they say they keep them, then at least they're being clear. You can then try to negotiate otherwise, or look for another job in the UAE. If the employer says they hand them back to the employees after visa processing, don't believe them unless you have very good reason to, and try and at least get something in writing to support what they say.
- Before you do anything, at least decide what you want. Justice, or your passport back? The two outcomes overlap but are not the same, and remember that in the UAE (well, any country to a greater or lesser extent), life isn't fair. So decide what's most important to you first.
- Then try to figure out the real reason why your company, employer, boss, or sponsor is keeping your passport. It is possible that the company does it as a matter of course because "everybody does it," not because of any malicious reason. We accept that this is unlikely but sometimes situations are more easily resolved when one gives the offending party the impression that you think their motives are better than they really are, and that is only really likely to be the case for small companies where you are able to easily talk to the top boss directly.
- At least try and ask politely for your passport to be returned, or why your employer wants to keep it. Probably a waste of time if the company is deliberately and knowingly flouting the law (most are).
- You could try pointing out that your passport is the property of your government and you are responsible for its safekeeping. Again, probably a waste of time for most companies but you should probably still go through the motions.
- Contact your embassy or consulate to report that your passport is being withheld by an unofficial body without your consent. Chances are the embassy or consulate will be unhelpful, and try to dismiss you and/or do nothing about it since they usually want to take the path of least resistance. It's easy to ignore a handful of complaints. Harder if every one of their citizens complains.
- Contact the UAE Ministry of Labour to file a complaint about your employer/sponsor. Again, they may not do much, but that seems to be changing as time goes on, and depending on how much wasta your employer has. A risk here is that your employer might or will know about your complaint and react by making life unpleasant and/or firing you. If that is a real fear, then it might be wise to contact a lawyer first before complaining to the Ministry of Labour.
- Instead of contacting the MOL, or your embassy/consulate, you could just say that you will do that. But as a general rule, don't make empty threats ... er ... promises. If you have no intention of doing so, and your employer calls your bluff, then you have ended up putting yourself in a much weaker position regarding your employment.
- If you get this far without seeing your passport, you're probably a bit stuck, along with a large proportion of workers in the UAE, at least until higher authorities really do something significant to force employers to return employee passports. You can try contacting a lawyer to help you fight to get your passport back, but bear in mind, as with any situation when an employee annoys their employer, a possible outcome is that you will either wind up doing unpleasant work or lose your job in an unpleasant way.
Some smartarse ways to try and keep your passport
- If you are concerned about having difficulties getting your passport from your employer, wait until you travel abroad since most employers will hand over a passport without a fuss then. Or arrange to go to Oman for a weekend or similar. On return, simply don't give the passport back to the employer.
- If your employer requests that you hand over your passport when it is in your possesion, try one of the following:
- Say yes, you'll bring it next week every time you get asked. And "forget" each time. Hopefully your employer might give up asking. Otherwise you'll have to try something else ...
- An additional delaying tactic could be to say you need it for embassy of another country for visit visa because you want to go there on holiday. Company might try and catch you out by saying their PRO can arrange such a visa.
- If you are female, say that your husband looks after it. Due to the misogynistic er patriarchal nature of UAE society, this is more likely to be believed than a husband saying his wife keeps it. However, if you are sponsored by your spouse for a residence visa then whether male or female, this should carry some weight. If you're female and unmarried, you might get away with claiming your "husband" keeps it anyway. Of course that particular lie won't do you any favors if you're single and hoping change that.
- Try and ask the embassy or consulate for a letter saying the passport is not to be given to unauthorised people or organisations. Handover the letter along with a copy of your passport information pages (it's reasonable for a company with expat employees to have a copy of their details - they will probably have made one when arranging visa and work permit anyway).
- Deposit your passport with your embassy or consulate for safekeeping and get a receipt. Give a copy of the receipt to your employer and tell them to take it up with your embassy or consulate. Then go back and retrieve your passport. Note that we haven't heard of anyone doing this, it's just an idea, and your embassy or consulate might laugh you out of the door. Add a comment to the forum if that happens to at least let others know what your embassy is like.
- Give a copy of your passport along with a copy of the page that says the passport is the property of your government, along with the telephone number of your embassy if you want to be cheeky, and tell your employer they should contact your embassy.
Some lies and stories employers tell to persuade employees to hand over passports
- UAE law says the employer and/or sponsor is responsible for the employee and have to keep their passport? The bit about responsibility is sort of correct but the passport retention requirement is rubbish.
- Government officials visit companies to check if they have a full quota of employee passports in their safekeeping (or any sort of variation on a theme)? That's rubbish. The copy of your passport on file with the employer should be fine for any sort of impromptu visit from a government official. You can always go and get your passport if required.
- Your employer is required to keep your passport for security reasons because of the nature of your work? People with jobs involving money (cashiers for example) might be given such a reason. That's rubbish, or should be, also.
- Company policy is to retain employee passports? Well, if it is, it's not your problem. Companies shouldn't have policies that violate the law and/or international agreements that the UAE is a signatory to. That's a problem for the company to resolve with your government.
- It's normal in the UAE for companies to keep their employees' passports? As it happens, it probably is. But "normal" does not equal "right" or "legally permitted"
Last update Sunday 03-Jun-2012. Page development 1H 2T 3D 4L 5C.