A Filipino maid in Hong Kong won the opening legal battle in her fight for permanent residency after a court ruled Friday that an immigration provision excluding the city's hundreds of thousands of foreign maids was unconstitutional.
It was a major legal victory in a case that has divided the city with accusations of ethnic discrimination against the foreign maids, most of whom are from the Philippines or Indonesia.
Justice Johnson Lam, ruling in the Court of First Instance, said the immigration provision denying the maids the right to gain permanent residency after seven years _ as other foreign residents can _ was inconsistent with the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution.
The government is likely to appeal the ruling.
The case was launched by Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a longtime foreign domestic helper, who sought a judicial review after her bid for permanent residency was rejected.
"To be clear, Ms. Vallejos won on the unconstitutionality of the provisions," said Mark Daly, one of the lawyers handling her case.
Vallejos, who did not attend court because she was busy working, "said thank God" after learning the outcome, Daly said.
The case has divided opinion in Hong Kong, with some arguing that immigration provisions barring maids from applying amounts to ethnic discrimination. The vast majority of the city's 292,000 foreign domestic helpers _ most of whom are women _ are from the Philippines or Indonesia, but some also come from Thailand, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. About 95 percent of Hong Kong's 7.1 million people are ethnically Chinese.
The maids are a big source of help to the middle and upper classes of Hong Kong, where it's common for families to employ one or more to live with them to do household chores and look after children.
But many complain that giving the maids permanent residency would result in an influx of their family members, which would put a strain on the densely populated city's housing, schools and other resources.
Several dozen people protested outside the courthouse against the maids and their supporters as the ruling was released. They carried placards and chanted "Civic Party betrayed Hong Kong!" _ a reference to pro-democracy legislators who backed the maids.
As of Dec. 31, 2010, 117,000 of the city's foreign maids had been in Hong Kong for more than seven years, Lam's ruling said, citing government figures.
Last year, about 120,000 of Hong Kong's foreign maids were from the Philippines, according to Philippine government figures. Indonesians account for much of the rest, but exact figures weren't available.
The money sent home by the maids is a big source of income for their families. According to the Philippine government, workers in Hong Kong accounted for $312 million of the $18.8 billion sent home by expatriate workers last year, or about 10 percent of the country's annual gross domestic product.
Vallejos has worked as a maid in Hong Kong since 1986. She applied last year for the judicial review after the immigration department rejected her permanent residency application in 2008.
Daly said he expected the government to appeal within the 28-day deadline.
The case will resume Oct. 26, when the court is to decide how to practically implement Vallejos' application.
Two similar cases involving five Filipino helpers are set to go before the courts in October.