A fair place for helpers, a better city for us all

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 December, 2010, 12:00am

Discrimination is illegal in Hong Kong. That's made plain by the Basic Law, the constitutional document by which our lives are governed. It guarantees that all 'residents shall be equal before the law'. But what is expressed in spirit doesn't necessarily apply when paired with supplementary legislation - just ask a foreign domestic helper.

Unlike most other foreigners, domestic helpers aren't entitled to become permanent residents after living here continuously for seven years. The Immigration Ordinance stipulates this despite the Basic Law. It's the same with the rule that a helper will be deported if a new employer can't be found within two weeks of their contract ending. There can't be any argument that these rules are discriminatory.

The authorities have resisted giving foreign maids the right to freely live and work in the city after seven years' continuous residence and that is what makes the case of Evangeline Banao Vallejos so important. Vallejos has applied for a judicial review of the government's immigration policy. She's been a resident for 24 years, but has had her application for a permanent identity card rejected by the Commissioner of Registration and been denied an appeal by the Registration of Persons Tribunal. Her lawyer has taken on her case on the grounds that such rejection is unconstitutional.

It's likely that the government will fight the matter all the way, just as it did with the unsuccessful struggle for right of abode by children born on the mainland to Hong Kong residents. Its reasoning has been the same: that to give the 250,000-plus maids permanent residency would open a human floodgate that would swamp our services, social welfare system and harm the economy. Given the colossal financial reserves our city continues to accumulate, this seems an unwarranted fear. In any case, like any other foreigner who wins permanent residency, domestic workers would still need to find employment to survive in a city where social services are minimal. Domestic worker rights groups believe the real reason has more to do with racial discrimination - an argument that seems plausible given the difficulties faced by maids from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere in upholding their rights in Hong Kong.

We see this all too often with maids who have been physically or sexually abused by their bosses. If they complain to police, they will lose their jobs and means of financial support for themselves and their families. The two-week rule is waived once a criminal case is opened, but they're not allowed to find another employer until there's a resolution. The legal process can last two years, during which they will be dependent on charity. Without income for so long, they usually either give up the fight or put up with the abuse.

Vallejos is fortunate that these aren't her circumstances. She's aware of the legal system and her rights. Her lawyer believes that changes are needed and is willing to fight on her behalf. But it will be many months before the issue gets before a judge and there are financial considerations. Legal aid will be granted only after most of the work on the case has been done and laid out convincingly. The solicitor has to be truly dedicated: the fees from legal aid are far below what can be earned in the private sector.

Hong Kong's economic strength has a lot to do with foreign maids; they take care of our children and elderly so that we can earn more for our families. Denying them the right to qualify for permanent residency is unfair and devalues the contribution they make. It also formalises their status as second-class citizens. Hong Kong will be a better place if Vallejos wins her case.