Skip to main content

Why Are Migrant Workers' Passports Still Being Held Hostage in the UAE?

Despite existing laws, multiple big and small organizations in the UAE continue to take away the passports of foreign employees, entrapping employees into a byzantine system of human rights violations and forced employment.
Downtown Dubai.

Downtown Dubai.

When Amol was first offered the chance in 2015 to move from Nepal to work in the United Arab Emirates, he knew it wasn't something he could pass up. Amol (not his real name) was unemployed at the time, and found himself struggling to provide for his wife and child. "To live and work in the UAE is no less than a dream for someone where I come from," he says.

In order to afford a ticket to Abu Dhabi and pay for his work visa, Amol had to pawn his wife's jewelry. While it is officially an employer's responsibility to cover the visa and travel costs of any employee they sponsor, Amol's local agent assured him that wasn't actually the case. It's a moment Amol remembers with sharp clarity: It is, he claims, the moment he was pushed into a large-scale cycle of manipulation and, despite promises made to him, further poverty.

Amol works now as a taxi driver with Emirates Cab, one of the largest private taxi services in the region. He spends about 14 hours a day driving the taxi; he gets no days off. These hours aren't unusual for someone in his profession: In a 2015 survey by the National, a newspaper based in Abu Dhabi, almost all surveyed drivers claimed to work anywhere between 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. That's the only way most of them can afford to live in the country.

It's now been over 16 months since Amol has seen his family, and he doesn't expect that reunion to happen any time soon. "I can't leave even if I want to. I'm under a contract and they have my passport," he says. The stringent sponsorship law of the UAE dictates that an employee under a "fixed contract" cannot leave the company without serving a minimum of two years, unless the employee agrees to reimburse 45 days of salary. For someone like Amol, who makes less than $360 a month, much of which he wires back to his family, accumulating that kind of money would take well over a year.

The UAE government officially outlawed retaining employee passports in 2002 because of the numerous labor right abuses that often amount to little less than slave labor. The official decree states, "It will be considered as an illegal action to detain the passport in the UAE except by the governmental authorities. In case of retaining passports there will be a suitable punishment by the law of UAE." The employer can be imprisoned or fined up to 20,000 Dirhams, about $5,450.

But for Amol and his colleagues, the law only works on paper. "We can cite the law and ask for our passports if we want to," he says. "But that has consequences." Those consequences include employer-issued fines, wage stagnation, and sudden termination.

Dubai has often been deemed the mecca of dreams for citizens of poorer countries, the Vegas of the Gulf with its manmade islands, tall skyscrapers, and large shopping malls. Moreover, the UAE is one of the largest Arab economies, second to Saudi Arabia, making it the most popular destination for temporary labor migrants worldwide.

But if you don't have the right to hold onto your own identity, does it really matter?


Amol's situation is hardly unusual, and could even be considered better than some other blue-collar workers in the UAE. According to a Human Rights Watch report, foreign workers constitute 88.5 percent of the UAE population, and low-paid workers are "subjected to abuses that amount to forced labor." It is estimated that there are three million such workers in UAE alone, and 61 percent of them come from South Asian or African countries.

Most work in construction, hospitality, or retail, and more often than not their passports are detained as soon as they start work and remain with the employer for almost the entirety of their contract.

Aditya Rehani (not his real name), whose family owns a number of medium- to large-sized businesses across Dubai and Abu Dhabi, explains how, despite the existing law, management can con employees into surrendering their passports.

"I can't leave even if I want to. I'm under a contract and they have my passport."

"When a prospective employee is interviewed, the company rarely ever talks about the passport," Rehani says. "The candidate also refrains from mentioning it because they don't want to endanger their chances of securing the job." He says that, after signing a contract, the employee must submit a passport in order to process an employment—a stage he refers to as a "twilight zone." Because, "once they hand over their passport," he explains, "employers have no intention of returning it."

What follows is a period of constant follow-ups, odd rebuffs, and excuses, until finally the employee is simply told that it's company policy for the employer to retain the passport. At that point, many choose not to report the issue as they have already set up their expenses, made promises of sending home some money, and have been assured their passport is only being held for "safekeeping."

But what happens to those who do chose to report the issue?

"There are many ways you can ruin someone's life in the UAE. It's a land where you are guilty 'til proven innocent, even without any evidence—not the other way around—and unscrupulous employers know this. People from developing countries are frankly terrified," says Luisa Williams, who worked as a human rights activist for over 10 years in Dubai. Williams, who goes by the name of Lola Lopez online, was recently deported from the country after allegedly raising money for children online, which is illegal in the UAE.

She describes a running term on the streets of Dubai called "wasta" which implies that anyone with "enough power or influence" can get away with anything—in this case, holding onto passports without any repercussions. Williams says that taking away a passport is a way to "intimidate and control" employees.

Williams, who has worked for the rights of several low-paid workers in the country, recalls a particularly harrowing case, one that ended in death. Sara Doe (not her real name) worked for a local construction company in Sharjah. Williams says her employer retained her passport while she struggled with a life-threatening disease. "I fought her employer for weeks trying to get it back whilst she was in hospital," Williams says. Although Doe's employer eventually returned the passport and Williams was able to get her on a flight home, Doe died the day after she arrived, directly due to the delays in her care.

It is important to note that Williams insists this pattern of abuse is limited to regional and local companies. "I have never heard of any respectable international organization conducting this practice," she says.

But Richard (not his real name), a member of the hotel staff at the Hilton Abu Dhabi, one of the largest hotel chains in the world, begs to differ. He has worked at the hotel for years and tells Pacific Standard that, once the practice was outlawed, the hotel management offered everyone a standard "form" to sign that specified the employee has voluntarily surrendered their passport and was in no way forced to do so.

Richard claims it wasn't really a matter of choice: Those who didn't submit their passports faced consequences similar to those Amor dealt with, including fines, stagnant wages, and sudden termination. "It's better than working long hours, with no scope for promotion, and being assigned difficult tasks," Richard says. An immigrant from Nigeria with a degree in computer engineering, he calls his job the "worst," but says nobody else would hire him here because of the color of his skin.

The Hilton maintains that it is in compliance with all local labor laws. In an official statement to Pacific Standard, a spokesperson said:

We are aware of instances in the United Arab Emirates where our team members voluntarily leave documents, including passports, with their hotel for safekeeping. In these cases the team member authorizes this in writing, and they are welcome to take back their documents at any time.

The spokesperson emphasized that, in all cases where a passport is being held, "the properties have a signed form authorizing this and making clear to the team member that it is voluntary."

Rehani says that "voluntary" is often hardly voluntary, and that employees often feel they have no choice but to hand over the most important document of identity. "Safekeeping is a word thrown around too often to manipulate the employee, but anyone with an ounce of intelligence would know that it's all about control," he says.

Williams adds that, in the end, the law itself has proved inapplicable too often, "because employers hold wide connections and government organizations themselves often retain their employee passports." Even government officials have confirmed this account: In a 2006 interview with Dubai-based Gulf News, a senior official of the Ministry of Labor admitted that the Ministry "may have violated the law by keeping the passports of its expatriate staff."

The Human Rights Watch found in its 2016 World Report that domestic workers in the UAE are often most vulnerable to abuse because, unlike other blue-collar workers, they still don't have the minimal protection afforded by the government's labor law. This means their employer has the complete right to take away their passport, or cut their salary without giving reason.

But perhaps the most severely affected are the staggering amount of blue-collar workers, faced with being stuck in the country, who choose to end their lives altogether. The Guardian reports that at least two Indian expats commit suicide each week in the UAE. The matter first came into light in 2011, when an Indian worker killed himself by jumping off the Burj Khalifa and since has become a common occurrence in the country, often brushed under the rug. Though not every suicide can be attributed to seized passports, many workers whose passports have been seized often find themselves with few remaining options.

Human rights activists like Williams who have worked to change the situation have ultimately seen their efforts fall victim to draconian laws prohibiting strikes and labor unions. Although protests do occur in the UAE from time to time, they often end in arrests. A 2013 investigation by the Observer revealed the plight of workers who chose to protest against inhumane living conditions. The investigation found that companies frequently trapped employees in the country by withholding their passports while forcing them to work under dangerous conditions leading to major casualties.

"There are many ways you can ruin someone's life in the UAE."

Making the situation more complex are the local regulations around freedom of speech and the press. In 2012, the UAE officially outlawed criticizing the government online. This forbids users from publishing any material that would "endanger the security of the state and its supreme interests." The "offense" can be penalized with imprisonment. Local media and press are barred from criticizing the government, the royal family, or the government officials. Stories of abuse and human rights violations remain absent from local newspapers, which are instead flooded with praise about government initiatives and laborers expressing immense joy at "improved working conditions."

"The population is not fighting back because anything that is critical of the government can be considered as increasing dissidents and discord. They're too afraid of being jailed, politically captured, deported, or covertly tortured," Rehani says.

For these reasons, among others, the UAE has come under fire and has been heavily condemned by Amnesty International and other international human rights groups. The Council of the European Union has also repeatedly raised its concerns over migrant workers' rights in the region. UAE officials have, time and again, responded to the outrage by vehemently denying any wrongdoing and reaffirming their pledge to fundamental human rights.

But in an effort to showcase their empathy early last year, local labor authorities organized an event meant for workers to air their grievances to the government. While many laborers praised the efforts taken by Emirati officials, most complained about the poor housing conditions; some described being forced to live with 10 other men in just a small room. Following this, a Ministry of Labor decree outlining the rules for terminating employment and granting work permits to new employees took effect in 2016. These rules partly govern how the visa-sponsorship system operates in the UAE and should theoretically make it easier for workers to change employers before their contract ends if their rights are violated.

But it's unclear if any other drastic changes came out of the event; the latest human rights reports continue to criticize the UAE over labor and rights abuses.