When Eni Lestari, an Indonesian domestic worker, heard about a ruling that might allow some 300,000 temporary foreign workers to live in Hong Kong permanently, she was thrilled. She likened it to the day in 2000 when she escaped from an abusive employer and learned at a shelter that she would not be deported. “I felt hope,” Eni, 37, said of both occasions. “I didn’t know there was a legal system that helps.”
But for Eni and tens of thousands of other foreign domestic workers living in this semiautonomous Chinese territory, that hope is fading fast — and so is their faith in the legal system. On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s Court of Appeal overturned the ruling. Unlike other foreigners, these workers cannot apply for permanent residency after seven years. The lower court found that unconstitutional, but the Court of Appeal ruled otherwise, saying it was for the state to decide the extent to which permanent residency is granted to foreigners. “Hong Kong apparently is under the rule of law and a place where you can pursue equality,” said Doris Lee, a representative of worker-support group Open Door. “Yet the government routinely excludes these women.”
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Domestic workers play a critical role in Hong Kong’s economy. Official figures show there were 286,000 migrant domestic workers in the city at the end of 2010, four times as many as there were a decade ago. They cook, clean and care for children, shuttling them to and from school and extracurricular activities. In doing so, they allow more parents to join the workforce and make it possible for them to sustain their notoriously long work days. Rights groups say many are overworked, housed in cramped quarters and paid below the minimum wage for foreign domestic workers, currently set at 3,740 Hong Kong dollars, or about $480, monthly.
The woman at the heart of the case is Evangeline Banao Vallejos, who was born in the Philippines but has spent the past 26 years living and working in Hong Kong. She is active in her church, volunteers in the community and has developed close ties to her host family. In 2008, she applied for the identity card given to permanent residents, but her application was rejected. Although foreign workers are typically eligible for residency after living in the city seven years, the law effectively excludes migrant domestic workers from making Hong Kong their permanent home. Vallejos challenged it as unconstitutional and won, a verdict that was seen as a landmark for domestic worker rights. On Wednesday, that ruling was overturned.
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Domestic workers and their allies vow to fight on. Vallejos’ lawyer, Mark Daly, said his client would likely take her case to the top court, the Court of Final Appeal, and that they could not accept the ruling or any legal interpretation that would create “second-class citizens.” Dolores Balladares, chairperson of migrant association United Filipinos in Hong Kong, said the Court of Appeal had essentially legalized discrimination. The workers feel they have been unfairly excluded from a right available to other foreigners and see the court as legitimizing that with its decision.
Joseph Law, chairman of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers Association, disagreed that discrimination was at issue. Hong Kong simply does not have the resources to cater to the potential influx of migrants, he said. Locals fear it would bring a flood of immigrants that would drain their health care, schooling and welfare resources. These fears are not new. Hong Kongers grappled with them when boatloads of refugees arrived in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. More recently, they have criticized the government for not doing enough to limit mainland Chinese women crossing the border to give birth at already overstretched Hong Kong maternity wards, which are viewed as safer.
If Vallejos does proceed, the case will be closely followed by rights groups around the world. The case “is one of the first to challenge the exclusion of domestic workers from immigration pathways that other migrants have access to,” explained Nisha Varia, a senior research at Human Rights Watch’s women’s-rights division. Watching too are the legions of foreign women who cook, clean and care for Hong Kong families. Since the original ruling, the government has accumulated a backlog of 901 applications by foreign domestic workers for residency. Eni, who has wanted to apply for five years but wants to know whether Vallejos will appeal before proceeding, said she was ready to wait for as long as it would take. “There is nothing to lose,” she said.
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