Many English schools abroad insist on holding teachers' travel papers as a security bond. Can a step that makes staff feel unsettled be justified, asks Martin Whittaker
When Jane O'Sullivan arrived in the United Arab Emirates to take up a new teaching post, the school asked for her passport so that her work permit could be processed. "I had worked abroad before, so I wasn't surprised and handed it over willingly," she says. But as the weeks went by she waited for it to be returned. And waited. And waited.
Finally, she was told that it would be retained by the school office as long as she worked there. She would have to fill out a form to release it.
Angry, and feeling somewhat vulnerable without it, she took issue with the management. "What if I needed the passport to fly home in an emergency?"
she says. "I had been in this situation in another country so I was quite sensitive about it."
She filled out the form and received her passport to fly home to England for Christmas. But on her return, the dispute resurfaced when she and another teacher refused to hand their passports in again. "I was asked for the document on a few occasions. I seem to remember laughing the requests off: 'Yes, but it's my passport.' Then I and the other teacher received letters from the school stating that if we didn't hand in our passports it would have 'implications for your salary'." Fearful for her mortgage, she backed down. She left the school three years ago and now works in Turkey.
"I objected on principle, especially as we were not allowed access to our passports until the day before we travelled. It was the feeling of control on their part, as well as the fact that we obviously weren't trusted."
The issue is a hot topic on The TES website's Staffroom Forum. "If we tried to refuse, we would be on the next plane home at our own expense," writes one correspondent. "We even complained to our embassyI and were told that it is perfectly legal."
But with the threat of war with Iraq, shouldn't teachers working abroad, particularly those in the Middle East, have every right to hold on to their documents?
"Teachers hate it - it's a bone of contention," says Therina Mulder-Reynolds, director of Worldwide Education Service, which recruits staff for overseas schools.
"It's usually those schools that are owned by host nationals," she says.
"Sometimes their policy is based on what they perceive to be unfortunate circumstances, when teachers in the past have left without settling bills, for example."
Information about which schools in which countries do hold teachers' passports as policy is thin on the ground. The Foreign Office does not keep a list of countries where this happens. Happily, the practice does seem rare. International Schools Services (ISS), based in Princeton, New Jersey, which recruits teachers for American international schools, polled 30 such institutions and all but three said that they did not hold the passports of foreign staff.
A head in Saudi Arabia said that national law requires employers to keep passports of foreign workers. Another head in Malaysia indicated that an international school in Kuala Lumpur held passports. And some English-language institutes in South Korea routinely hold passports of foreign staff. "I believe teachers should view as a red flag any request for a school or institute to keep the passports of foreign hire workers," says Ralph Jahr, vice president of educational services with ISS.
But some argue that there are benefits to a school keeping your papers. At the International School in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, staff are legally required to be issued with an official identification document which has to be carried with them at all times. This takes the place of their passport while they're in the country, says Russ Law, the school's director. "Staff - including the director and senior management - are happy to entrust the care of their passports to the school safe. Since this policy began, there have been no cases of loss or theft - as did occasionally happen before with the consequence of great inconvenience and expense."
If a teacher needs to leave the country, the school arranges for the necessary visa to be put in the passport - available 24 hours a day. "It really is a matter of trust between the teacher and the school," says Law.
"And it is important for the teacher to be confident of the school's credentials and reputation. Best advice: know your school."
His words are echoed by the international school recruitment agent Gabbitas. It recommends that teachers check out thoroughly any overseas schools they apply to, and find out whether they belong to one of the associations of international schools, such as the European Council of International Schools.
"Even for visa purposes, there doesn't appear to be any reason to keep somebody's passport to stop them leaving the country," says Emma Hilson, overseas recruitment consultant with Gabbitas.
The company recommends that teachers obtain several copies of crucial documents such as passport, birth certificate, marriage certificate, and qualifications, and have them authenticated as genuine copies by the host country's UK consulate and a notary, a solicitor who can act as an impartial witness to certify documents for use abroad. But the cost of these copies, visa fees, translation of certificates and travelling to consulates can soon mount up. Indeed, Gabbitas estimates the total cost at between pound;600 and pound;700.
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office says: "Passports are formally the property of Her Majesty's Government. While we object to them being held without the consent of the holder, we wouldn't normally object when the holder consents to it - which they would be doing tacitly by accepting the job overseas with which it is a condition of employment. People can always make a complaint to a local embassy or high commission if they wish to retrieve their passport."
Next month: Inside the old Empire