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Hong Kong says ‘appropriate’ to deny maids residency

Sen. Panfilo "Ping" Lacson with Filipino workers in Hong Kong. There are more than 290,000 domestic workers in the former British colony, now under China, many of whom are Filipinos earning as much as $480 a month.

HONG KONG, August 23, 2011 (AFP) – A Hong Kong court heard Tuesday that restrictions barring foreign maids from settling permanently in the city were legitimate, in a landmark case which has sparked debate on equal treatment.

The case of Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a Philippine domestic helper who has lived in Hong Kong since 1986 but was denied permanent residency, has cast a spotlight on the financial hub’s treatment of its army of foreign maids.

Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, or mini-constitution, foreigners can apply to live there permanently after seven years of uninterrupted residency – but the city’s 292,000 domestic workers are specifically excluded from that right.

Vallejos challenged the restriction, saying it was unconstitutional and discriminatory, but government lawyers told the High Court that the Basic Law allowed the policy.

“This is an appropriate immigration policy for the Hong Kong government to adopt,” David Pannick said, adding that the city’s government was allowed to use a “more flexible approach” to define who is eligible for residency.

Activists say a successful legal challenge – the first of its kind in Asia – would entrench domestic workers’ right to equality, but opponents fear it would open floodgates to the immigration of thousands of foreign domestic workers.

The case could have implications beyond Hong Kong for other Asian economies that rely heavily on cheap imported labour for cooking, cleaning and looking after children, in order to allow women to join the local workforce.

In her submission, Vallejos’ counsel said domestic helpers should not be differentiated from other workers as they have entered Hong Kong legally and can renew their contract, just like other foreign workers.

“There is nothing that renders their residency so extraordinary,” lawyer Gladys Li said, before the hearing was adjourned until Wednesday, when the case is expected to conclude.

Foreign maids in Hong Kong are entitled to better working conditions than in other parts of Asia – they are guaranteed one day off a week, paid sick leave, and a minimum wage of $480 a month.

But rights groups say they still face general discrimination and a lack of legal protection. A maid’s visa is tied to a specific employer, leaving her vulnerable to domestic abuse, the activists say.

And without the right to permanent residency, she must find another job in domestic service or leave Hong Kong within two weeks if let go by her employer.

Vallejos’ case is the first of five launched by Filipinas who have filed similar lawsuits. The other cases are due to be heard in October.

The Hong Kong court said will rule next month whether foreign maids are allowed to settle permanently in the city, it said Wednesday as the hearing into a landmark and controversial case wrapped up.

High Court judge Johnson Lam reserved judgment after a two-and-a-half day hearing and said he will deliver a decision by the end of September, with an exact date yet to be fixed, Vallejos’ lawyer Peter Barnes told AFP.

The ruling will be crucial as Vallejos’ legal battle is the first of five launched by Filipinos – the other being a couple, and a mother and son – who have filed similar lawsuits, due to be heard in October.

The case has sparked frenzied debate in the southern Chinese city – one of the most vibrant economies in the Asia-Pacific region – on equal treatment for the foreign domestic helpers who play a key role in many households.

Vallejos challenged the restriction, saying it was unconstitutional and discriminatory, but the government argued in court that it was “appropriate” and it is empowered to define who is eligible for residency.

Activists say a successful legal challenge—the first of its kind in Asia—would entrench domestic workers’ right to equality, but opponents fear it would open floodgates to the immigration of thousands of foreign maids.

The case could have implications beyond Hong Kong for other Asian economies that rely heavily on cheap imported labour for cooking, cleaning and looking after children, in order to allow women to join the local workforce.

Foreign maids in Hong Kong are entitled to better working conditions than in other parts of Asia—they are guaranteed one day off a week, paid sick leave, and a minimum wage of HK3,740 (US$480) a month.

But rights groups say they still face general discrimination and a lack of legal protection. A maid’s visa is tied to a specific employer, leaving her vulnerable to domestic abuse, the activists say.

Without the right to permanent residency, if dismissed by her employer she must find another job in domestic service or leave Hong Kong within two weeks.

 

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