HONG KONG (AFP) – A Hong Kong court on Friday ruled a law banning foreign maids from settling permanently in the city was unconstitutional, in a landmark case for domestic helpers (DHs).
The legal action, brought by Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a Filipino domestic helper who has lived in Hong Kong since 1986, has cast a spotlight on the financial hub’s treatment of its army of 292,000 maids.
The High Court ruled that immigration laws barring domestic workers – mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia – from applying for permanent residency violated Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law.
“My conclusion is that on the common law interpretation approach the impugned provision is inconsistent with (Hong Kong’s Basic Law),” Judge Johnson Lam wrote in a ruling issued Friday.
“The mere maintenance of (a) link with her country of origin does not mean that (a maid) is not ordinarily resident in Hong Kong.”
Vallejos’s lawyer Mark Daly hailed the decision as “a good win for the rule of law.”
“We spoke to Vallejos – she said she thanks God and all the people who have helped her, including her employer and her lawyers,” he said. “She is busy working so she has no time to be here today.”
Activists said the legal challenge would entrench domestic workers’ right to equality, but opponents fear it will open the floodgates to new immigrants in an already overcrowded city.
A pro-government political party has warned there would be an influx of as many as 500,000 people – including children and spouses of foreign maids – that would cost HK$25 billion ($3.2 billion) in social welfare spending.
The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong forecast unemployment could jump from the current 3.5 percent to 10 percent.
The government has declined to say how many maids would currently be eligible to apply for permanent residency.
Under Hong Kong law, foreigners can apply to settle in the city after seven years of uninterrupted residency, but maids were specifically excluded.
Vallejos challenged the restriction, saying it was unconstitutional and discriminatory, but the government argued in court it was “appropriate” and that it is empowered to define who is eligible for residency.
Another court hearing will be held on Oct. 26 on whether Vallejos can now be declared a permanent resident, but government lawyers have already said they would appeal any ruling in favor of the maids.
The case could also have implications beyond Hong Kong for other Asian economies that rely on cheap imported labor for cooking, cleaning, and care of the young and elderly.
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 ($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.
Vice President and Presidential Adviser on Overseas Filipino Workers’ Concerns Jejomar C. Binay said the Hong Kong court decision was “a step forward in recognizing the rights of migrants.”