International hotel chains operating in the UAE have said they retain workers’ passports to provide a safe and secure place for the documents whose owners are often living in shared rooms.
A spokesperson for Jumeirah, which operates six hotels in the emirates, told The National: “For [the workers’] peace of mind we assist them by providing secure, fireproof storage for their passports in a central, easily accessible location which is open 24 hours a day including all weekends and public holidays.”
In the UAE, employers of migrant workers are often criticised for keeping passports. It is seen to increase the vulnerability of employees and restrict their freedom of movement. In Abu Dhabi it is illegal to retain passports, but it does not mean the practice is not common.
Emma Corcoran, the corporate communications director for the Middle East and Africa for Hilton Worldwide, which has 10 hotels in the UAE, said: “In terms of the way we look at it, it's done for safety. They have constant access. Employees are free to come and go. There are no restrictions at all."
The hotel chain says it only keeps passports with the owners’ written consent, but The National reported that employees have said their consent was not voluntary and that they were often too scared to object for fear they would not be allowed to work in the UAE anymore.
However, Sara Khoja, a senior associate at the law firm Clyde and Co in Dubai who specialises in employment law, told the newspaper she expected the passport retention policies to change.
"It's becoming very, very unfashionable," 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 by the newspaper to comment.