Hong Kong opens hearing on landmark labor case | Global News
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Hong Kong opens hearing on landmark labor case

/ 03:54 PM August 22, 2011

HONG KONG—Hong Kong Monday began hearing a Philippine maid’s legal bid for permanent residency, in a landmark case that has sparked debate over the army of domestic helpers sustaining the city’s economy.

Rights activists have said a successful legal challenge will be a first in Asia, and a recognition of rights and equality for domestic workers, who are mainly from labor-exporting nations like the Philippines and Indonesia.

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The case of Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a Filipina maid who has lived and worked in Hong Kong since 1986, has seen newspapers debate the rights and wrongs of the case for weeks.

And 19 people were arrested for public order offenses after supporters and protesters clashed over the issue at rallies on the eve of the hearing.

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Vallejos launched the legal battle last year after her attempts for permanent residency – which allows a person to vote and gives them better access to public services – were denied by the city’s immigration authorities.

Vallejos’ lawyers said in opening arguments that the authorities’ refusal to grant her permanent residency was discriminatory and unconstitutional.

“There is no criteria (in the constitution) that any group must satisfy certain higher standards,” counsel Gladys Li told the High Court, which was packed with journalists, lawyers and activists.

“There is no exclusion based on race, religion, nationality… or place of birth.”

Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, non-citizens are entitled to permanent residency if they have “ordinarily resided” in the city for a continuous seven years.

The immigration laws, however, specifically exclude the 292,000 foreign domestic helpers in the city as they are not considered to be ordinarily resident.

The case, which is expected to be heard for two days, has prompted a series of debates, with critics saying that if the court rules in favor, it will open the floodgates to thousands of foreign maids to apply for residency.

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The biggest pro-government party warned there would be an influx of as many as 500,000 people – including children and spouses of foreign maids – and it would cost an extra HK$25 billion ($3.2 billion) in social welfare spending.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong said any immigration would come at the expense of local workers and forecast unemployment could jump from the current 3.5 percent to 10 percent.

The authorities have declined to divulge how many foreign domestic workers will be entitled to permanent residency, if Vallejos’ case is upheld.

But Vallejos’ lawyer rejected the argument that there would be a massive influx of domestic workers.

“It doesn’t mean if the bar is removed, then everybody will suddenly become entitled to permanent residency,” Li told the court, saying there are requirements that need to be met apart from the seven-year stay period.

Lawyers representing the government will reply to the arguments later.

Vallejos was not present in court on Monday, but scores of her supporters held a brief rally outside before the start of the hearing.

Another four Filipinos have also filed a similar bid, in cases due to be heard in October.

The hearing was preceded by clashes on Sunday after scuffles broke out during a march by some 300 people opposed to permanent residency for foreign domestic helpers.

Another group, comprising mainly of students, reportedly accused the marchers of racial discrimination and hurled insults before police moved in to arrest 19 individuals for “causing disorder in a public place.”

Those arrested had become “emotional, tried to obstruct a public procession… and pull down barriers,” a police spokesman told AFP, adding that 16 of the 19 have been released on bail.

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TAGS: Economy, Hong Kong, labor rights, maids, Philippines
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