February 25, 2021

Maids Test Residency Rules in Hong Kong

Tens of thousands of domestic workers fan across places like Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island, huddling together eating, singing, dancing, reading or playing cards. Sunday offers an escape from long days of housekeeping and child care, which often start at dawn and stretch well into the evening.

Some are young and newly arrived, but many have lived here for years, some even decades. Those long-term domestic workers are the focus of a court case that has prompted news conferences, marches and daily coverage in the local media, and has fueled an emotional debate about what it means to be a Hong Kong resident.

Starting Monday, a court will hear arguments from lawyers representing Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a woman from the Philippines who has lived in Hong Kong since 1986 and has worked for the same household for more than 24 years. It is time, her lawyers argue, that she be granted permanent residency.

Many foreigners can apply for that status once they have lived in Hong Kong for seven years. But domestic workers — who number 292,000 in a territory of seven million, according to a government estimate, and who come primarily from Indonesia and the Philippines, making up the bulk of Hong Kong’s non-Chinese population — are specifically excluded.

Observers say a ruling for Ms. Vallejos would be a landmark not just for Hong Kong, but for the region. “In many Asian countries, domestic workers are not even given a day off in a week,” said Nilim Baruah, a chief technical adviser with the International Labor Organization in Bangkok.

The case has fueled spirited debate in Hong Kong. Some decry what they see as discrimination against foreign-born maids; other say that giving them permanent status could have serious economic consequences. The case has also raised questions about the sensitive issue of Hong Kong’s legal independence from Beijing and the “one country, two systems” model that has been in place since Great Britain returned the territory to China in 1997.

“Everyone knows that this is a legal issue, but it is spilling into the political arena,” said Kylie Uebergang, an executive of Civic Exchange, a nonpartisan public policy research group based in Hong Kong.

Neither the Hong Kong nor the Philippine government, citing the sensitive nature of the case, would comment on the legal issues. But in a nod to how polarizing the issue has become, the Hong Kong justice secretary, Wong Yan-lung, asked the public last week to respect whatever ruling the court issues.

Ms. Vallejos’s supporters say that denying permanent residency to domestic helpers violates Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the mini-constitution that took effect with the 1997 handover, and which spells out the seven-year requirement. Permanent residents have the right to vote and greater access to public services like health care, and may bring spouses, dependent children and, in some cases, parents into Hong Kong.

Opponents of Ms. Vallejos’s cause — notably, political parties and trade organizations affiliated with the government — point out that other groups, like diplomats and contract workers brought in for specific assignments, are also ineligible for permanent residency.

A pro-Beijing political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, has estimated that as many as 125,000 foreign domestic helpers could be eligible to apply for permanent residency now, if the law were changed.

Based on that estimate, and assuming that all eligible domestics would gain permanent status and bring family members to Hong Kong, the party estimated that as many as 500,000 people could move into the territory, a scenario that could worsen unemployment and put new strains on social welfare services and an already tight housing market.

“We cannot afford a sudden influx of 300,000 new residents,” said Joseph Law, chairman of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers Association, offering another estimate. “The public services cannot afford this. We don’t have enough housing for the people already here in Hong Kong.”

Fally Choi, program coordinator for the Asia Monitor Resource Center, a rights group supporting Ms. Vallejos’s appeal, calls such claims “nonscientific and irresponsible,” saying, “This is purely racial discrimination and class discrimination. Other foreign workers are allowed to apply for permanent residency.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/22/world/asia/22iht-maids22.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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