Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, the highest judicial body within the territory, has today ended a two-year legal battle that has divided the territory regarding the permanent residency rights of Foreign Domestic Helpers (FDH).
Evangeline Banao Vallejos and Daniel Domingo have both resided in Hong Kong for 17 and 27 years respectively. Under normal residency laws, foreigners legally living within Hong Kong uninterrupted for seven years are eligible for permanent residency, which would allow them and their family the right of abode within the affluent tax free territory, the right to work, to vote in local government elections, and to obtain reduced travel restrictions on visiting Mainland China. However, because Vallejos and Domingo were working as a maid and a cleaner, they are ineligible for permanent residency status, something that their lawyers have argued is unconstitutional and amounts to discrimination. The court ruled against the plaintiffs, but debate continues to rage throughout Hong Kong.
FDHs come to Hong Kong on a special FDH work visa to work as maids, cleaners, and helpers for middle and upper class families, as well as in hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality businesses. The territory has an estimated 300,000 FDHs accounting for 4% of Hong Kong’s total population, mainly coming from the Philippines and Indonesia. They are entitled to live and work within the territory for the duration of their contracts and their employers are required to pay a security deposit of HK$9,600 (1,200 USD), provide free medical insurance, a minimum HKD 3,700 (470 USD) salary per month plus overtime payments and paid holiday leave. However, should a FDH quit their job or their contract is not renewed the individual has 2 weeks to find another job or return to their country of origin.
Despite the strict laws, nearly half of Hong Kong’s FDHs have resided in the territory continuously for more than seven years. Under normal circumstances they would be allowed to apply for permanent residency status, but according to the courts their contracts clearly state that they “intend to work in Hong Kong as a FDH only and not for the purposes of settlement” and are therefore excluded from having the right to permanent residency.
Many in Hong Kong have argued that the ruling is institutionalized discrimination, that it is unjust and elitist to allow expat bankers and professionals the right to permanent residency, but deny it to FDHs. The counter side of the agreement claims that Hong Kong has every right to exclude any class of people from permanent residency status in the interests of the territory and its people. They argue that should the 150,000 FDHs eligible for permanent residency under normal conditions be granted such, it would risk Hong Kong being flooded by additional applications and migration of FDHS family members, all of whom would be considerably poor and place strain on the territories limited resources. Hong Kong as a whole is only 426 square miles (slightly smaller then New York City), but with a population of 7 million it is the 4thmost densely populated place in the world. Furthermore the territory has limited water and virtually no domestic agriculture.
Having grown up in Hong Kong and possessing permanent residency, I find myself torn on the issue. To say that the law excluding FDHs is unfair would be accurate. In an ideal world there shouldn't be this double standard between FDHs and expat professionals. Nevertheless, I disagree that denying FDHs permanent residency is unconstitutional. Whether fair or not, any country or territory has the right to allow in whatever immigrants they do or do not want that is in the best interests of their stability. Naturally, a country is going to be more likely to grant residency to an individual who is unlikely to strain on social welfare and resources.
An example of a compromise can be found in the situation of my family’s own FDH housekeeper. Whilst living in HK my family employed Rita, a young Filipino housekeeper. She cooked, cleaned, and ran errands for my parents, who both worked full-time jobs. She was honest and she worked hard, she knew she would never be granted permanent residency as a FDH, so in what little free time that she had, she studied at night school to become a teacher, and after becoming qualified, my parents wrote her job references based on the tutoring help she gave my brother and me while working for us. Fifteen years on, we still exchange Christmas and Chinese New Year Cards. Rita gained her permanent residency 10 years ago after working as a kindergarten teacher for seven years, went to university in her 30s, and is now an elementary school teacher at a international school in Hong Kong.
Based on this, I feel that the Hong Kong government should try and provide training schemes for FDHs wanting to gain permanent residency, and by doing so they would be able to fill jobs that are in demand within the region. It might not be perfect and it might be a while before the son of a FDH is applying for a job as a banker at HSBC, but it is a start and it is a compromise.