Hong Kong Legal Fight Ends ; Foreign Domestic Workers Can't Gain Permanent Residency, Top Court Rules

By Bradsher, Keith | International Herald Tribune, March 26, 2013 | Go to article overview

Hong Kong Legal Fight Ends ; Foreign Domestic Workers Can't Gain Permanent Residency, Top Court Rules


Bradsher, Keith, International Herald Tribune


The landmark case of a Filipino domestic helper, who had worked in Hong Kong for 27 years, highlighted questions of judicial independence.

Hong Kong's highest court ruled unanimously Monday that a woman from the Philippines who had lived and worked here for nearly 27 years as a domestic helper was not entitled to permanent residency, ending an acrimonious legal fight over the immigration rights of migrant workers.

Public opinion surveys had shown that a large majority of Hong Kong citizens opposed granting permanent residency to the city's domestic helpers, which would give them the right to live in the city for the rest of their lives and use the nearly free public health care system and other social services. Many residents and the local government feared that granting permanent residency would result in increased social spending.

But activists for domestic helpers and Mark Daly, the lawyer who championed their cause in the legal battle that ended Monday, contended that denying permanent residency would cement lasting divisions in Hong Kong based on gender and race. Virtually all of the roughly 300,000 foreign domestic helpers in this city of seven million are women, and they are not mainland Chinese, who qualify for separate rules for permanent residency and passports under Hong Kong's Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution.

The decision Monday by the Court of Final Appeal "is a regrettable decision, it basically entrenches their being second- class citizens," Mr. Daly said.

Lai Tung-kwok, Hong Kong's secretary for security, welcomed the court's decision at a news conference late Monday afternoon, saying that the government would rely on it in handling a recent surge in applications from domestic helpers for permanent residency. There were 1,067 such applications between September 2011, when the legal effort on behalf of foreign domestic helpers began attracting attention, and the end of last week, according to the city's Immigration Department.

The landmark case had highlighted questions of judicial independence, with Hong Kong's government having put heavy pressure on the court to reject permanent residency for foreign domestic helpers.

In an unusual and highly contentious move, the local government had asked the court in advance to refer a key issue in the case to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in Beijing, which could be expected to side with the Hong Kong government. In issuing its decision Monday in the government's favor, the court said that its ruling meant there was no need to seek a binding legal interpretation from Beijing, even as the ruling also made it clear that there could be other circumstances in which the court would seek such an interpretation.

With the decision, the high court judges "on the one hand maintain the authority of the Court of Final Appeal and at the same time try not to be too aggressive to the National People's Congress," James Sung, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong, said in an interview outside the courthouse, a brick mansion in the city center.

The decision had been watched around Asia as a sign of whether Hong Kong, the vast majority of whose population are ethnic Chinese, would embrace a more multiethnic future. Rimsky Yuen, Hong Kong's secretary for justice, said that the territory would "certainly endeavor to maintain Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan society."

The ruling also comes as China's new president, Xi Jinping, has spoken in a series of speeches of a "China dream" that blends nationalism and socialism in calling for a muscular military combined with an economic rejuvenation of China under Communist Party guidance. …

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