Passport retention is against the law in UAE. Your passport is usually the property of the government that issued it (as mentioned in the small print in your passport, which usually contains words to that effect), and each passport holder is responsible for its safekeeping.
The passport is a personal document of its holder, and its final authority is the issuing government. It is an official document that certifies holders’ identity and citizenship allowing them to travel abroad under its protection. Therefore, it is more of a personal document, to be kept in possession of the holder.
Retaining passports is technically illegal in the UAE, although the practice is widespread, especially among companies that hire large number of expat workers.
Although it is okay to handover your passport to various authorities such as border control officials, embassies and consulates of other countries, police departments etc., around the world if the situation requires it, you are not supposed to handover your passport to unauthorized bodies. And, your employer is not an authorized body to retain your passport.
Ideally, when working for an employer in the UAE, you are allowed to handover your passport so that they can get a residence visa stamped on it for you, and thereafter, they should return your passport to you after stamping. It is your duty to keep your passport in safe custody, and not your employer’s.
However, it is common for employers in the UAE to attempt to keep the passport of their employees, despite knowing that the practice is illegal. On the other hand, if you choose to give your passport to your employer for safekeeping, then there is nothing illegal about it. But, it would be wise to check with your embassy or consulate if you are permitted to do that, first.
The employers usually say that the reason behind retaining employee passport is for safekeeping. But, often why employers choose to retain employee passport is apparently because companies want to have a certain degree of control over them, and holding on to passports is a way of compelling employees to stay back in the country, so that they do not abscond and to reinforce the authoritative nature of employer-employee relationship.
Legally, your company has no right to hold your passport, and retaining employee passport is against UAE Labour Law. The laws in UAE do not entitle the employer to keep the employee’s passport for whatsoever reason, and the passport shall not be submitted to anyone unless upon order of Public Prosecution or Court only, according to Advocates and Legal Consultants.
A case of passport confiscation would cost between Dh.5000 and Dh.10,000 for the employer, although it is considered as a ‘simple case’. Moreover, the government will not tolerate companies that withhold passport.
"Retaining workers’ passport also amounts to forcible work in violation of International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour, to which the UAE is a signatory. Employers who fail to give workers their passports on request are in breach of trust. The offence carries imprisonment of upto three years and/or fine amounting to Dh.20,000 or more," quotes UAE Ministry of Labour Legal Department.
Some precautions that are worth considering to avoid retention of passport by employers:
- Ask your future employer about their policy on retention of employee passports prior to signing the job contract. If they have a policy of retaining the passport, you can negotiate with them on this, else, look for another job. On the other hand, if the employer say they would return the passports back to employees after visa processing, do not believe them until you have a good reason to do so, and try to get it in writing from them, to support what they say.
- If you have missed out finalizing the passport retention issue prior to joining the job, and if your employer is currently holding your passport, the first step that you should take is to politely request them to return your passport. If they are not paying heed to your request, do let them know that it is illegal to retain passports, as it is the property of your government and you alone are responsible for its safekeeping.
- If your passport is still not returned to you, consider contacting your embassy or consulate to report that your passport is being withheld by an unofficial body without your consent.
- If you do not receive a favourable response from your embassy, contact the UAE Ministry of Labour to file a complaint about your employer / sponsor. However, your employer will know about your complaint and chances are that he may react to it in an unpleasant manner. If you are not comfortable about facing such a scenario, it may be wise to contact a lawyer first before complaining to Labour Ministry.
- Before contacting the Embassy or Labour Ministry, you can hint to your employer in advance about your intentions to take it legally. But, as a general rule, do not make empty threats or promises.
- Another strategy worth trying to get your passport from your employer is to wait till you travel abroad, as most employers will then be ready to handover passport without fuss. Else, organize a weekend trip to Oman or similar place.
- Try to get a letter from your embassy saying that the passport should not be given to unauthorised people or any organisation. You can handover the letter along with copy of your passport information pages to your employer to claim your stand on the matter.
- You could 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 employer or consulate.
Employees need to be aware of the below aspects:
- In case the employer retains the passport and refuses to handover after repeated requests, the staff or employee can approach the nearest police station, and the company will have to handover the passport there.
A 2002 decree explicitly states that it will be considered as an illegal action to detain the passport of employee in UAE, except by the governmental parties. In case of retaining passports, there will be suitable punishment by the law in UAE. However, the law did not specify which agency should enforce the rule, although employees can file a complaint with Labour Ministry.
The employees should also be aware that although the company assures about returning the passport whenever required by the employee, the passport is released only with prior written request and approval and most of the time, it takes several days, depending on company procedure.
Finally, with all the proof and legal warnings that mention that keeping employee passports is illegal, expatriates still need a job, and it is a sad fact that most employers in UAE are still retaining passports. Every policy must be enforced for it to be effective, and it is still unclear why this decree is not implemented seriously, and even court orders sometimes go unanswered.
If this is the case, and you desperately need the job, then to be on the safer side, it is best for the employee to at least get a signed document from employer stating that he/she is holding your passport, and if so, the reason for holding it. The document should also mention that they assure the employee about returning it to him/her immediately and at any time during their employment, if required.