HONG KONG — After three years of legal argument, the highest court in Hong Kong has upheld a government appeal that denies overseas domestic workers the right to residency in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. The case has implications for Hong Kong’s judicial independence from Beijing, and the rights of poor migrant workers across Asia.
The unanimous decision Monday by five judges in the Court of Final Appeal ended a constitutional challenge by domestic workers Evangeline Banao Vallejos and Daniel Domingo.
The Philippine appellants argued that, like white collar expats, foreign domestic workers should be entitled to permanent Hong Kong residency after working seven years in the city.
Eman Villanueva, of the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, labeled the verdict discriminatory.
“There are more than 300,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong and the message is very unfair: the court’s ruling gives the judicial seal … to the social exclusion of foreign domestic workers," said Villanueva.
Government figures indicate that around 100,000 maids and their dependents, mainly from developing Asian nations, were eligible to apply for abode after Vallejos and Domingo won their initial case in 2011. Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok noted that more than 1,000 residency applications already had been received.
“The government welcomes the verdict [and] will proceed to process new and pending applications submitted by foreign helpers according to the law as affirmed by the court," said Lai.
Migrant women in low paid domestic jobs across Asia and the Middle East - working to support families back home - saw the 2011 decision as a sign of hope, says Holly Allen of the NGO Helpers for Domestic Helpers. Now, she says, other states might not seek to improve migrant worker rights, spurred on by Hong Kong’s lead.
“They work long hours; some up to 20 hours a day with very little rest," said Allen. "Canada, maybe some other western countries allow foreign domestic workers to apply for residency, but no other countries in Asia.”
The Hong Kong public is divided on the decision, despite almost universal fears that schools, hospitals and public housing in the territory - with a population of 7 million - risks being overwhelmed by tens of thousands of migrant workers simultaneously claiming abode.
The case also has escalated concern about the erosion of judicial autonomy in Hong Kong. This occurs at a time the Communist Party in Beijing is increasingly aware of anti-China sentiment in the city, and the waning popularity of a local leadership it helped put into office.
While the court confirmed Hong Kong’s constitutional authority in immigration matters, Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen says that would not preclude asking Beijing to settle a years-old case relating to the rights of children born locally to mainland fathers.
“Our position has been very clear; that we are trying our very best to resolve all the legal issues concerning [these] babies by avenues available in the local legal system," said Yuen. "We will exhaust our means before we do anything [else].”
Any deferral to Beijing promises to cause further tension in Hong Kong, where a civil disobedience movement driven by an increasingly disenfranchised middle class is gathering momentum - its aim to strengthen democracy, not weaken it by relinquishing autonomy.