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Filipina wins landmark rights’ case for domestic helpers in HK

HONG KONG – A Hong Kong court ruled yesterday a law banning foreign maids from settling permanently in the city was unconstitutional, in a landmark case for domestic helpers.

The High Court said immigration laws barring maids – mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia – from applying for permanent residency violated Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law.

The legal action, brought by Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a Filipina domestic helper who has lived in Hong Kong since 1986, has cast a spotlight on the financial hub’s treatment of its army of 292,000 domestic helpers.

“My conclusion is that on the common law interpretation approach the impugned provision is inconsistent with [Hong Kong’s Basic Law],” Judge Johnson Lam Man-hon wrote in a ruling issued yesterday.

“The mere maintenance of [a] link with her country of origin does not mean that [a maid] is not ordinarily resident in Hong Kong.”

Activists said the legal challenge – the first of its kind in Asia – would entrench domestic workers’ right to equality, but opponents fear it would open the floodgates to the immigration of tens of thousands.

“A step forward in recognizing the rights of migrants.”

This was how Vice President and Presidential Adviser on Overseas Filipino Workers’ (OFWs) concerns Jejomar C. Binay described the decision of the Hong Kong court.

“The ruling is a step forward in recognizing the rights of migrants. OFWs have contributed to the economy of their host countries and the decision recognizes their contributions,” Binay said in a statement yesterday.

Vallejos is a domestic worker and she filed for residency in 2008. If she were any other foreign worker, such as a banker, lawyer or teacher, she would automatically win the right to permanent residency after seven years.

However, a separate ordinance in the law stated that domestic helpers are excluded from this right.

Permanent residency in Hong Kong means a person can remain in the territory indefinitely, and they cannot be deported, according to the Basic Law.

They also win the right to vote and to stand in elections.

The government-mandated minimum wage for domestic helpers is HK$3,740 or about US$480, a month, including rudimentary room and board.

Human-rights advocates have said a ruling in favor of Vallejos would represent a significant step toward dismantling the system that treats domestic workers as second-tier residents and that her victory could lead to the more than 270,000 domestic workers in the city gaining the right to apply for permanent residency. (JC Bello Ruiz)