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Hong Kong Divided Over Foreign Maid's Citizenship Bid

Eman Villanueva (L), vice chairperson of the Filipino Migrant Workers Union, and Dolores Balladares (2nd L), chairperson of United Filipinos in Hong Kong, along with other representatives, meet journalists outside the High Court in Hong Kong August 22, 20

Hong Kong residents are protesting a legal challenge by a Philippine domestic worker seeking the right to settle permanently in the Chinese territory after living there for 25 years. Among other things, the legal battle also raises concerns about Hong Kong's judicial independence from Beijing.

Hong Kong has long attracted women from Asia’s poorer countries with the promise of relatively high-paid salaries in domestic service.

Support groups for foreign workers say about 300,000 domestic helpers typically work eighteen hours a day, six days a week, carrying out duties for local families. Holly Allan is with the support group Helpers for Domestic Helpers.

“Foreign domestic helpers contribute significantly to the economy of Hong Kong," Allan noted. "Their minimum wage is around $400 a month. Because of their services, Hong Kong women who have children can work, and so increase the disposable income of the household. That in turn improves the economy.”

Employment law

In Hong Kong, white collar workers such as foreign bankers, lawyers and teachers, who enjoy low taxes and a high standard of living, can apply to make the territory their permanent home after seven years residence.

However, employment law currently bars foreign domestic helpers from acquiring such status; and with it, the right to vote and receive welfare support.

That exclusion is being challenged in the High Court this week by Evangeline Vallejos, a former businesswoman from the Philippines who arrived in Hong Kong to work as a maid in 1986.

Her lawyer, Mark Daly, argues that the rejection of her abode application violates the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which was implemented on the territory’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

This document, which enshrines significant legislative and judicial independence for Hong Kong, sets out the requirements for permanent residence, and demands equality in the eyes of the law.

Facebook campaign

Vallejos's citizenship bid has sparked protests from locals. Hong Kong citizens marched through the streets in protest against her case in recent days, and a Facebook campaign quickly gained more than 3,000 signatures.

“We are against the idea that maid[s] want to stay in Hong Kong after seven years of work," said dentist Shelley Lau. "If they stay, then they become a citizen and have a citizen’s privileges. That involves the medical, housing, educational support. I think that lots of Hong Kong citizens think like me.”

Public concerns have been fueled by pro-Beijing legislators. They claim that victory for the maids would see Hong Kong’s seven-million population swollen overnight by 500,000 workers and their dependents, costing taxpayers $11 billion in health, housing and education expenses.

These figures have not been substantiated by the government. Neither has the government agreed to the same legislators’ demands that if Vallejos win her legal case, that it should be referred to China’s National People’s Congress.

Meanwhile, four more domestic workers are expected to bring similar cases in the coming months.