Hong Kong court overturns landmark ruling on maids

AP News
Posted: Mar 28, 2012 1:00 AM
Hong Kong court overturns landmark ruling on maids

A landmark ruling that would have let foreign maids gain permanent residency in Hong Kong was overturned on appeal Wednesday in the latest twist for a case that has divided the city.

A three-member panel of High Court judges overturned a September lower court ruling that would have allowed a Filipino maid to apply to settle permanently in the southern Chinese city after living here at least seven years, as other foreign residents can.

They unanimously rejected arguments by the maid's lawyers that an immigration provision barring domestic workers from permanent residency was unconstitutional. Lawyers for the maid said they would take the case to Hong Kong's top court.

The case has split the city, home to nearly 300,000 maids from mainly Southeast Asian countries. Some argue that barring maids from applying for residency amounts to ethnic discrimination. But other groups have raised fears that the case would result in a massive influx of maids' family members arriving in Hong Kong, straining the densely populated city's social services and health and education systems. Supporters of the maids say those fears are overblown.

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China and permanent residency is the closest thing it has to citizenship. Those who have it can vote and work without needing a visa.

Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a Filipino woman who has worked as a maid in Hong Kong since 1986, launched the case after her bid for permanent residency was rejected.

Government lawyers argued in their appeal that the September ruling was wrong because it placed limits on lawmakers' ability to decide who is eligible to permanently settle in Hong Kong.

The judges in the High Court's Court of Appeal agreed with the government's arguments.

"A foreign domestic helper's stay in Hong Kong is for a very special, limited purpose," which is to do a job that cannot be filled by local workers, High Court Chief Justice Andrew Cheung said in the panel's written ruling.

"Hence, their stays in Hong Kong are highly regulated so as to ensure that they are here to fulfill the special, limited purpose for which they have been allowed to come here in the first place, and no more."

Mark Daly, a member of Vallejos' legal team, said he wasn't surprised by the ruling and it was "highly likely" that they will take the case to the Court of Final Appeal.

"The law shouldn't be interpreted to effectively create second-class citizens," Daly said. "We'll continue to fight for justice until the end."

By the end of 2010, 117,000 foreign maids had been in Hong Kong for more than seven years, the September ruling said, citing government figures.

Many middle-class families in Hong Kong employ maids to do household chores and look after children for a minimum wage of about $450 a month and room and board.