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Maid Seeks Hong Kong Court Ruling for Equal Residence Rights

Hong Kong’s policy of denying permanent-residence rights to foreign maids is being challenged as unconstitutional, stoking public debate over ethnic discrimination in the Chinese city.

Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a domestic helper from the Philippines who has lived in Hong Kong since 1986, asked the Court of First Instance today to rule that an immigration law, which deems imported domestic helpers ineligible for rights such as voting and setting up a business, contradicts Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law.

A victory for Vallejos would open the door for Hong Kong’s 300,000 foreign maids to apply for permanent residency after seven years working in the city, something at least three political parties in Hong Kong have said would strain health care, education and public housing resources. Hong Kong’s population is 95 percent ethnic Chinese, according to the most recent census data from 2006.

“The issue is not whether to give them permanent residence, the issue is whether they should be denied the right that is given to other non-Chinese nationals,” Vallejos’ lawyer Gladys Li told Judge Johnson Lam today.

A tribunal last year dismissed Vallejos’ appeal against a government decision denying her permanent-resident status and said the constitution allows for laws that exclude maids and other classes of workers from its provisions, according to her court filing.

“This category of persons are subject to legally binding restrictions that are out of the ordinary,” David Pannick, a lawyer representing the government, told the court today.

Economic Contribution

Imported domestic helpers in Hong Kong are required to live with their employers and aren’t allowed to accept other jobs. In 2004, the maids contributed HK$13.8 billion ($1.8 billion) to the local economy, or one percent of Hong Kong’s total economic output that year, according to a report by the Asian Migrant Centre, a non-governmental organization.

“They released a lot of the local female labor force into the market and enabled them to take jobs,” Liu Pak Wai, an economics professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, said in a telephone interview.

Hong Kong began allowing locals to hire domestic help from abroad in the 1970s. The population of imported help grew from 881 in 1974 to 70,335 in 1990, the government said in court filings. Liu said the foreign workers now comprise some 300,000 of the city’s 7.1 million residents, their numbers buoyed by strong demand from middle-class Hong Kong families.

Manila Bus Hijack

Ethnic tensions between the local population and the foreign help flared a year ago after eight Hong Kong hostages were killed in the hijacking of a tourist bus in Manila.

The Philippine government appealed to the Hong Kong people to refrain from taking out their anger against Filipinos in the city, while tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents participated in a march to demand a thorough investigation in the Southeast Asian country.

In 2003, over 10,000 foreign maids marched against the Hong Kong government’s decision to cut their minimum wage while levying a tax on their employers. Then-Philippine president Gloria Arroyo imposed a temporary freeze on approvals for Filipinos to work in Hong Kong in protest.

Beijing Interpretation Call

Social commentators and academics have criticized comments by the Liberal Party and New People’s Party leader Regina Ip, who called on the government to consider seeking an interpretation of the Basic Law by China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

Fernando Cheung, a lecturer at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, wrote in the South China Morning Post on Aug. 18 that the Hong Kong people should remember the discrimination suffered by the Chinese population in the U.S. under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The law, which stood for 61 years, restricted immigration and prohibited Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens.

Secretary for Justice Wong Yan Lung, in an Aug. 17 press statement, urged the public to avoid as far as possible making comments which might prejudice the court’s decision.

People should “show the greatest respect to our Court and our legal system, and to avoid as far as possible making any comments which might prejudice or affect the Court’s adjudication of the case,” he said in the statement.

The special administrative region was guaranteed an independent judiciary for 50 years under the “one country, two systems” framework following the handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

The case is Vallejos Evangeline Banao, also known as Vallejos Evangeline B. and Commissioner of Registration, HCAL124/2010 in Hong Kong’s Court of First Instance.

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