Scarcely a week goes by, it seems, without news of a hapless expatriate, often a labourer or a housemaid, who has fallen into quasi-illegal status because an employer or former employer is "holding" the person's passport. As The National reported yesterday, this practice leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation and, even in the most innocent cases, limits job mobility.
And this practice, with all its negative consequences, has somehow persisted even though it was made illegal fully a decade ago. "It will be considered as an illegal action to detain the passport in [the] UAE except by the governmental parties," says an official 2002 decree.
In today's world, and especially for expatriates, a passport is essential. Without it, you lose your right to free movement. Anyone who holds your passport also holds an unhealthy level of control over your life.
But every policy must be enforced to be effective, and at present it is unclear what ministry or agency - if any - has the primary responsibility to enforce the decree quoted above. Indeed, even court orders for the return of passports sometimes go unanswered.
An employee who has had to yield his passport to an employer can, it is true, file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour - providing he knows his right to do so, and can find time and transport and any help he may need to fill in the forms. But such appeals can simply lead nowhere.
A serious effort to end this abuse would begin in workers' countries of origin. Before coming to the UAE, individuals could be notified that they are entitled by law to hold on to their passports themselves. The telephone number of an enforcement agency could be provided as well. Officials would have to be ready, at the other end of the line, to act upon complaints from newly arrived workers.
One concern for some employers of domestic staff is theft - but there has to be a policing solution there, not a policy of holding passports. Other employers insist they retain passports "for security reasons" because workers have no safe storage in the labour camps where they live. But there is surely another solution to that problem, in the form of safety-deposit boxes. They need not be expensive and could be provided by employers as an element of basic accommodation.
The withholding of passports, and the potential for abuse this practice permits, puts low-income employees in difficult positions. Systematic enforcement of existing law ought to be a high priority.