Hong Kong yesterday began a hearing a Philippine maid’s legal bid for permanent residency, in a landmark case that has sparked debate over the army of domestic helpers sustaining the territory’s economy.
Rights activists have said a successful legal challenge will be a first in Asia and a recognition of rights and equality for domestic workers, who are mainly from nations like the Philippines and Indonesia.
The case of Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a Filipina domestic helper who has lived and worked in Hong Kong since 1986, has seen newspapers debate the rights and wrongs of the case for weeks.
Nineteen people were arrested for public order offenses after supporters and protesters clashed over the issue at rallies on the eve of the hearing.
Vallejos launched the legal battle last year after her attempts for permanent residency — which allows a person to vote and gives them better access to public services — were denied by Hong Kong’s immigration authorities.
Vallejos’ lawyers said in opening arguments that the authorities’ refusal to grant her permanent residency was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
“There is no criteria [in the Constitution] that any group must satisfy certain higher standards,” lawyer Gladys Li (李志喜) told the High Court, which was packed with journalists, lawyers and activists.
“There is no exclusion based on race, religion, nationality ... or place of birth,” Li said.
Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, non-citizens are entitled to permanent residency if they have “ordinarily resided” in the territory for a continuous seven years. However, the immigration laws specifically exclude the 292,000 foreign domestic helpers in the territory as they are not considered to be “ordinarily” resident.
The case has prompted a series of debates, with critics saying that if the court rules in favor, it will open the floodgates to thousands of foreign maids to apply for residency.
The biggest pro-government party warned there would be an influx of as many as 500,000 people — including children and spouses of foreign maids — and it would cost an extra HK$25 billion (US$3.2 billion) in social welfare spending.
The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong said any immigration would come at the expense of local workers and forecast unemployment could jump from the current 3.5 percent to 10 percent.
The authorities have declined to divulge how many foreign domestic workers will be entitled to permanent residency, if Vallejos’ case is upheld.
However, Vallejos’ lawyer rejected the argument that there would be a massive influx of domestic workers.
“It doesn’t mean if the bar is removed, then everybody will suddenly become entitled to -permanent residency,” Li told the court, saying there are requirements that need to be met apart from the seven-year stay period.
Vallejos was not present in court yesterday, but scores of her supporters held a brief rally outside before the start of the hearing.
Another four Filipinos have also filed a similar bid, in cases due to be heard in October.
The hearing was preceded by clashes on Sunday after scuffles broke out during a march by about 300 people opposed to permanent residency for foreign domestic helpers.
Another group, comprising mainly of students, reportedly accused the marchers of racial discrimination and hurled insults before police moved in to arrest 19 individuals for “causing disorder in a public place.”