Arabtec Holding chief executive Riad Kamal has defended his construction firm’s practice of holding the passports of foreign construction workers.
The retention of the passports did not mean the labourers were being forced to work, said Kamal, who is also chairman of Arabtec Construction, a subsidiary of Arabtec Holding and one of the largest construction firms in the UAE.
He said the passports were retained for workers own security and they were able to regain them whenever they wished.
“This is not a question of jail,” he said. “Nobody forces any of the men to work.”
“The issue of keeping the passports is an issue that is important for us,” he said.
“It is better for us to have the passports from a security point of view. If a labourer wants to leave, he can leave any day he wants.”
The UAE's Ministry of Interior has previously issued instructions warning employers not to hold the passports of employees for any reason.
Concerns were expressed about the practice of construction companies retaining the passports of foreign workers in an article in the UK’s Independent newspaper this week.
Michael Grose, partner in Clyde and Co , a construction law firm in Dubai, said the practice of companies holding the passports of workers was not illegal if employees had given their consent.
“If the passport holder consents to their employer holding a passport there is nothing under local law that makes it an offence,” he said.
“If the passport is taken from the holder forcefully or against their consent that would be an issue for the government that issued the passport.”
The UAE is signed up to the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour, under which the retention of workers’ passports is a violation of the agreement.
Grose said the UAE government had a responsibility to uphold the terms of the convention.
“If the UAE approved of the practice of holding passports that would put the UAE in breach but it does not apply to individual companies.
“The UAE does have a duty to uphold the terms of the convention,” he said.
No one was immediately available to comment from either the Ministry of Labour or the Ministry of Interior.
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