Domestic workers in Hong Kong have long been treated a notch below other foreign workers, and are told that admission into the country can never be for the purposes of settlement.
Hong Kong’s top court announced that foreigners can enter the city as maids and domestic helpers, but cannot expect to settle there as permanent residents.
The verdict deals a blow to a huge contingent of Filipino maids and nannies – estimated at some 300,000 females, usually unmarried and under 35 – who make up a diaspora in Hong Kong. The domestic workers are increasingly seen as an indispensable part of the fast-paced city's social fabric, helping keep the Chinese family working and orderly in a highly competitive environment.
Yet sadly for the maids, today’s ruling reverses a lower court verdict that would have allowed the women to seek residency. Had it been upheld, the ruling would have been a breakthrough for the rights of domestic workers, who often complain of overwork, second-class status, and occasionally, abuse.
While other foreign workers can apply for permanent residency after spending seven consecutive years in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, domestic helpers are excluded from the law.
Justice Ma wrote in his ruling that foreign domestic helpers are "told from the outset that admission is not for the purposes of settlement."
The ruling was greeted with disappointment by campaigners.
"It's very unfortunate and it's sad but in a way it will make us stronger as it highlights the social exclusion that foreign domestic workers face in Hong Kong," said Cynthia Tellez, General Manager of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong.
In recent years the ubiquitous Filipino maid has become a staple part of Hong Kong culture. They are known for hard work, dignity, and efficiency. Collectively, they have built a kind of mini-civic society: They have their own postal system, often police themselves, have a variety of support groups, and even run ballots and campaigns for elections back home.
Most middle- and upper-echelon Hong Kong families hire a maid, and apartments usually include a tiny space as the maid’s quarters or abode.
For many years on Sundays, usually their only day off, Filipino nannies peacefully and colorfully gathered in central Hong Kong, along the main boulevard, past the city hall and the old Admiralty building, putting down blankets or chairs and pulling out lunch baskets, stretching out two-or three deep on a sidewalk in a line that often is a half-mile long.
Yet the right of maids to assemble has been under attack, and their overall legal status has been shrinking, as the city contemplates the costs (said to be $3 billion or more) of offering them the kinds of equal access that would involve education and other social services.
The judgment ends the right of abode saga started by a judicial review sought by Evangeline Vallejos Banao, a mother of five, who has worked in Hong Kong since 1986. She had argued that an immigration provision barring domestic workers from permanent residency was unconstitutional.
Mark Daly, a lawyer for Vallejos, said his client was “speechless but calmly resigned and said ’no problem.’
Vallejos won a High Court ruling in 2011 granting her the right to request permanent residency status, denied to the city’s 300,000 foreign maids until then. The decision however was overturned later on a government appeal.