HONG KONG - Hong Kong's top court ruled against two Filipino domestic helpers seeking permanent residency Monday, the final decision in a case that affects tens of thousands of other foreign maids in the southern Chinese financial hub.
In a unanimous ruling, the Court of Final Appeal sided with the government's position that tight restrictions on domestic helpers mean they don't have the same status as other foreign residents, who can apply to settle permanently after seven years. Lawyers for the two had argued that an immigration provision barring domestic workers from permanent residency was unconstitutional.
In the ruling, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma wrote that foreign domestic helpers "are told from the outset that admission is not for the purposes of settlement and that dependents cannot be brought to reside in Hong Kong."
The decision means Evangeline Banao Vallejos and Daniel Domingo cannot apply for permanent residence even though Vallejos has worked in Hong Kong since 1986 and Domingo since 1985. Neither appeared at court.
"We are very disappointed," said Mark Daly, a lawyer for the pair.
He said Vallejos was speechless after learning about the decision.
"While we respect the judgment, we disagree with it," Daly said.
He added that the ruling is "not a good reflection of the values we should be teaching youngsters and people in our society."
The case has split the city, home to nearly 300,000 maids from Southeast Asian countries. The vast majority are from Indonesia and the Philippines. Some argue that barring maids from applying for residency amounts to ethnic discrimination. But other groups have raised fears that the case would result in a massive influx of maids' family members arriving in Hong Kong, straining the densely populated city's social services, health and education systems. Supporters of the maids, who earn at least $500 a month and get room and board, say those fears are overblown.
Members of an activist group briefly chanted "We are workers, not slaves" and others slogans on the courthouse's front steps after the ruling was released.
"Today is a very sad day for migrant workers in Hong Kong," said Eman Villanueva, secretary-general of United Filipinos in Hong Kong. "With the court's ruling today, it gave its judicial seal to unfair treatment and the social exclusion of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong."
Hong Kong is a former British colony that has been a special administrative region of China since 1997 and permanent residency is the closest thing it has to citizenship.
Along with the foreign maids, Hong Kong is also home to tens of thousands of expatriates working in professions like banking, accounting or teaching. They can apply after seven years for permanent residence, which allows them to vote and work without needing a visa.
Government figures cited by a lower court in this case said an estimated 117,000 foreign maids had been in Hong Kong for that length of time as of 2010.
The decision also means the court doesn't need to grant a controversial government request for Beijing to reinterpret residency rights outlined in the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
The request had raised fears about Beijing interfering in Hong Kong, which prides itself on having a strong rule of law with a separate legal system from mainland China and under the Basic Law is granted a high degree of autonomy until 2047.
Hong Kong legal judgments: http://legalref.judiciary.gov.hk
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