The Hong Kong government won a legal appeal Wednesday, overturning the right of foreign domestic workers to claim permanent residency in the southern Chinese city. It's a verdict that advocacy groups describe as discriminatory.
After living and working in Hong Kong for more than a decade, Filipino domestic worker Evangeline Vallejos took the city’s Immigration Department to court last November.
Her aim was to win the same right of permanent abode accorded to thousands of skilled white-collar expats after seven years’ residence - a right defined in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
The High Court found in favor of Vallejos. Its judgment upheld her argument that the Basic Law, effective since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, applies to all people equally.
However, that verdict was overturned by Hong Kong’s appeal court Wednesday. The court concluded: "It is a fundamental principle that a sovereign state has the power to admit, exclude and expel aliens."
Dolores Balladares is chairwoman of United Filipinos in Hong Kong, a migrant worker advocacy group that supports Vallejos.
"We are very disappointed. It discriminates against foreign domestic workers if others can apply for the right of abode, but why not foreign domestic workers," asks Balladares.
Migrant workers' rights vs. state law
While the terms of employment for migrant workers are significantly better in Hong Kong than other Asian countries, including Singapore and Malaysia, maids are permitted just one statutory day of rest a week and are precluded from Hong Kong’s minimum wage legislation. Instead, they often work 15 hours a day - caring for children, cooking and cleaning - for a basic weekly salary of only $110.
Justice Andrew Leung added in the court’s judgment that their exclusion from the provisions of the Basic Law "is a category of exclusion not different in kind, but only in degree, from the pre-existing categories of excluded persons, for instance, Vietnamese refugees and imprisoned or detained persons."
The November judgment was seen as an important advance in the rights of migrant workers across Asia. It sparked protests, though, among Hong Kong’s indigenous Chinese community.
Of the 300,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong - predominantly from the Philippines and Indonesia - about 120,000 fulfill the seven-year residency requirement.
However, politicians and community groups argued that far more, perhaps up to half a million people, would be eligible for permanent residency if maids’ dependent relatives were included in the decision.
Estimates suggested it would cost local taxpayers more than $11 billion to pay for the education, health and other social benefits to which these potential new permanent residents would be entitled.
Balladares argues such fears are misplaced.
"We believe the Philippines is our home and really, we want to return there after working here," she said.
Further appeals expected
Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee told reporters that Hong Kong would continue to suspend the 900 applications for permanent abode already made by migrant workers after the November decision. He said he also expected Vallejos to take her case to the Court of Final Appeal.
"Therefore at this stage, the government will not regard the judgment as a final determination of the relevant legal issue," said Lee.
Should Vallejos prevail at the Court of Final Appeal, Lee did not preclude amending the Basic Law, a constitutional process that would require the involvement of the central government in Beijing.
"There are lots of comments on [re]interpretation of the Basic Law by the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress. These are very controversial issues. The amendment of the Basic Law is not yet on our horizon," said Lee.
Approaching Beijing to resolve the abode question would be widely unpopular among a public that fiercely guards its judicial independence from China under the principle of one country, two systems.