The ruling was unanimous. But that didn’t make it any less unfair. Last Monday, the highest court in Hong Kong voted 5-0 to deny the appeal of Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a Filipino who has been working in the special Chinese administrative region as a domestic helper since 1986, to be granted permanent residency. The fundamental unfairness of the ruling can be glimpsed in the following terse but accurate news summary surfaced by a simple search on Google: “A Filipino woman who has been in Hong Kong for 27 years is ineligible for permanent residency because she’s a maid.”
If Vallejos (or Daniel Domingo, another helper who joined her appeal) were working in another trade, she would have qualified for permanent residency after seven years. But precisely because she was a maid, the Court of Final Appeal ruled that she was disqualified from applying for permanent-resident status.
The report from The Telegraph quoted the key passage from the judgment. “The nature of foreign domestic helpers’ residence in Hong Kong is highly restrictive. The foreign domestic helper is obliged to return to the country of origin at the end of the contract and is told from the outset that admission is not for the purposes of settlement.”
True enough. The helper is obliged to return at the end of the contract. But Hong Kong itself allows that contract to be renewed, or for the “foreign domestic helper” (a legal term) to stay in Hong Kong for two weeks while looking for or negotiating another contract. The Vallejos case, therefore, is not about granting what amounts to citizenship status in Hong Kong to someone who has successfully skirted the law for many years; rather, it is about recognizing the contribution of someone who has observed Hong Kong’s own laws all these many years (27 for Vallejos, 17 for Domingo).
Certainly, the helper is “told from the outset” that the contract she is about to enter into “is not for the purposes of settlement.” But at what point does Hong Kong consider a foreign domestic helper to be a productive member of society worthy of permanent residency? Vallejos and her supporters (and, to be sure, a good number of Hong Kong residents themselves) say that point is reached at the same seven-year mark required for all other types of foreign workers. Counting the number of contract renewals is another possibility; a helper, say, who has had her two-year contract renewed five times may be considered eligible. But last Monday the Court of Final Appeal ruled that by law there is no such point. A foreign domestic helper can never be considered worthy of permanent residency.
That may be constitutional by the standards of Hong Kong’s basic law; it is, nevertheless, discriminatory and unjust.
The last year and a half must have been particularly stressful for Vallejos, in large part because the stretch started with a historic high. In September 2011, a lower court judge ruled that the exemption disqualifying foreign domestic helpers from the seven-year residency rule violated the basic law—a landmark decision that favored Vallejos, and a highly controversial one.
That high was followed by a crash; in March 2012, the High Court of Hong Kong overturned the lower court on the Hong Kong government’s appeal. Three months later, Vallejos won a second victory. The same High Court allowed her to appeal its own ruling before the highest court in Hong Kong, the Court of Final Appeal. Last Monday, however, Vallejos’ legal journey reached the end of the road.
There is talk that the real argument against allowing foreign domestic helpers permanent residency is economic: With almost 300,000 such helpers in the former British colony, about half of whom have worked in Hong Kong without interruption for at least seven years, the costs of integrating them and the families they will bring with them will be decidedly prohibitive.
There is also the possibility that independence concerns weighed heavily on the minds of the judges; a victory for Vallejos at the Court of Final Appeal would have forced the government of Hong Kong to appeal to Beijing, compromising the Hong Kong judiciary’s independence.
Whatever the reason, the final ruling sent an unmistakable message to foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong: You may work for us, you may serve us loyally, faithfully, for years on end, but you will never be part of us.