What other document matches the legal importance of a passport? In our society that includes so many expatriates, the passport is the legal avatar of identity: it opens borders, is vital in getting a job and is often demanded by the myriad bureaucracies of modern life. Losing your passport or having it stolen can generate immediate and serious anxiety.
So an employer who insists on retaining passports is making a blunt assertion of control. This can be intimidating, especially for those most likely to be subjected to this treatment, namely manual labourers and others who have little practical legal recourse.
As The National reported on Friday, passport confiscation is widespread even though it has consistently been condemned by the courts. The problem is that for a worker to complain to the Ministry of Labour requires considerable courage, and bringing a civil action against an employer is often prohibitively costly, even if workers know they can expect to win.
This should change. If the practice is not explicitly banned under criminal law, then companies should at least become aware that this dubious labour practice can endanger their brand reputations.
The issue arose this week when four workers complained to the Ministry of Labour that an international hotel chain operating the Millennium Hotel in Abu Dhabi, which was holding passports and health cards of employees. The firm said this was commonly done "for security purposes" with employees' consent, but clearly the four workers do not see the issue that way.
A 2002 Ministry of the Interior decree says passport retention "will be considered as an illegal action" entailing "a suitable punishment by the law". And the International Labour Organisation says passport retention violates its Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour, which the UAE has signed.
But the policy is rarely enforced unless there is a complaint. That helps explain why the practice is so common in many industries. Even worse, some employers require another worker to put up a financial guarantee when a colleague reclaims his passport. This practice is undoubtedly illegal.
The UAE has made good progress in recent years on several aspects of workers' rights law. Now the passport-retention issue is an obvious candidate for reform as well.