ABU DHABI // The controversial retention of workers' passport is common and widespread because employees living in shared housing lack a safe place to keep their valuables, according to three leading hotel chains.
"Many of our colleagues share accommodation, so for their peace of mind we assist them by providing secure, fire-proof storage for their passports in a central, easily accessible location which is open 24 hours a day including all weekends and public holidays," said a spokesman for Jumeirah, which manages six hotels in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The Hilton and InterContinental are two other international hotel chains that say they retain passports, but that employees had round-the-clock access to their personal documents. The hotels only keep passports with employees consent.
"In terms of the way we look at it, it's done for safety," said Emma Corcoran, the corporate communications director for the Middle East and Africa for Hilton Worldwide, which has 10 hotels in the UAE. "It's done for their protection, and they have constant access. Employees are free to come and go. There are no restrictions at all."
Though Abu Dhabi's highest courts have ruled that retaining passports is illegal, no law or legislation has been formally written forbidding the practice. However, a 2002 decree from the Ministry of Interior states: "It will be considered as an illegal action to detain the passport in UAE except by the governmental parties … in the case of retaining passports there will be a suitable punishment by the law of UAE."
No government agency enforces the law, though employees can file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour. Several employees at the Millennium Hotel in Abu Dhabi have filed complaints with the Ministry of Labour for passport retention. The hotel's policy is in line with other hotels, but employees said their consent was not voluntary.
"People are scared that if they say anything they won't be allowed to work in the UAE anymore," one worker said.
The UAE is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour. Withholding passports is not technically a violation of that convention. "However, the committee on labour standards underlined that withholding passports or IDs from workers does restrain their freedom of movement," an ILO representative said. "Such a practice increases their vulnerability and, because of this, they are more likely to become victims of forced labour."
The ILO representative also said that employers could keep passports in "exceptional circumstances, for example, if the wish is expressed by workers themselves and in their own interest to avoid documents being lost or stolen".
Hotel operators said they were aware the practice was illegal, but their policies did not amount to forced labour. Because shared accommodation is unique to the region, local divisions and individual hotels are able to construct their own policies on passport retention.
"Employees can request for their passports at any time, ie business or personal travel or in case of any emergency," said Jenny Atkinson, the vice president of human resources for India, Middle East and Africa for InterContinental Hotels Group, which has 19 UAE hotels.
The Rezidor Hotel Group, which operates Radisson hotels, and Rotana Hotel Management Corporation declined to comment.
Sara Khoja, a senior associate at the law firm Clyde and Co in Dubai who specialises in employment law, said she expects the passport retention policies to change.
"It's becoming very, very unfashionable," Ms Khoja said. "It's just not something that employers do any more. They're recognising that it's just not acceptable or lawful to take someone's passport away."
The Ministry of Interior failed to respond to requests to comment.