Yesterday, in an unprecedented legal ruling in Hong Kong, Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a Filipino maid who has been working in the city since 1986, won the opening legal battle in her fight for permanent residency after Hong Kong’s Court of First Instance ruled that an immigration provision excluding the city’s hundreds of thousands of foreign maids was unconstitutional and inconsistent with the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. What would be the possible ramification of this court ruling to Hong Kong? What is the core issue of this permanent residency debacle?
Permanent residency is the closest thing that the Hong Kong special administrative region of China has to citizenship. Article 24 of the Basic Law defines who may become a Hong Kong Permanent Resident and have the right of abode. Most of the definitions involve Chinese citizens but Item 4 states – “Persons not of Chinese nationality who have entered Hong Kong with valid travel documents, have ordinarily resided in Hong Kong for a continuous period of not less than seven years and have taken Hong Kong as their place of permanent residence before or after the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”
To put flesh to Article 24 (4) Hong Kong’s Immigration Department’s ordinance articulates who qualifies to become a permanent resident – “A person shall not be treated as ordinarily resident in Hong Kong while employed as a domestic helper who is from outside Hong Kong.”
This interpretation of the Hong Kong Immigration Department has sparked major debates in Hong Kong and has even prompted law makers and legal luminaries to seek the thoughts of the national government in Beijing to help clarify the issue and to put an end to the dispute over permanent residency claims of several domestic helper groups.
In addition to this immigration rule, foreign maids (mostly Filipinos and Indonesians) in Hong Kong are only allowed to have two weeks to get a new employment contract once their current employment lapse otherwise they would be deported. How possible it is to get employment contract in Hong Kong in two weeks? This “two weeks rule” has been criticized by the United Nations as unfair and as a form of racial discrimination.
As of December of last year, there are 117,000 foreign maids (mostly Filipinos and Indonesians) that had been in Hong Kong for more than seven years and Ms. Vallejos’ recent legal victory have raised the issue to an even more intense and divisive issue. Locals fear that there would be an “overnight” increase on the already populated Hong Kong and it would have a negative effect on the economy and as well to its political system. As I see it, there are up-sides and down-sides on this recent court ruling on foreign domestic workers to have permanent residency.
On the up-side, just as Hong Kong’s economy was prospered by massive integration of foreigners and immigrants in the 1950’s, the recent immigration ruling can also be viewed as another turning point in positively reframing Hong Kong’s social strata. The “new residents” could help improve the city’s population structure and address its ageing population and low birth. The “new residents”, many of whom have university degrees in nursing and midwifery could also help Hong Kong with its acute staffing problems in public health facilities. The “new residents” can contribute to the further growth and development of Hong Kong.
On the down-side, Chinese workers with low incomes in Hong Kong could lose their jobs from the “new residents” and their relatives that they can now bring into the city by virtue of having permanent residency. Unemployment rate might also climb and welfare expenditure by the government could likely increase. The “new residents” can also become a political force in Hong Kong and a virtual Filipino or Indonesian Party would appear in Hong Kong’s Legislative Congress as they can now vote in elections and run for public office. This would certainly become a cause of concern not only for Hong Kong politicians but most importantly from those in Beijing who are espousing the “One country, two systems” program in Hong Kong.
I have also some concerns on how domestic helpers and their relatives who would come over to Hong Kong can cope up with the high cost of living in the city. You see, once they received their permanent residency, their employers would not be required any longer to provide them food and accommodation. Wouldn’t it be better if maids would receive higher wages and more benefits?
Knowing how Hong Kong government operates and on how the locals react to the issue, surely, the Hong Kong government would appeal the case and it would implement a restraining order in issuing permanent residency to domestic helpers. The government would also revise its labor laws setting a maximum number of years (less than 7 years) for foreign maids to lawfully work in Hong Kong. I am quite certain that that they would do whatever they can to disallow foreign domestic helpers to have permanent residency.
More than the ramification that this recent ruling can possibly do to Hong Kong, one important issue that I think is the real and core issue of this permanent residency debacle is the issue of upholding just laws and human rights. In HK, it appears that there is an immigration ordinance that is inconsistent of its constitution and there is a rule that discriminates domestic helpers. There is a set of rules for rich foreign workers and poor foreign workers. Ms. Vallejo’s legal victory is a slap in the face of many abusive Chinese Hong Kong DH employers who are yet to realize that domestic helpers are individuals with rights, dignity, and value.
Image credit: Inquirer Global Nation