HONG KONG — For the 300,000 maids of Hong Kong, the hope of opening up a path to permanent residency has been decisively snuffed out.
The Hong Kong high court ruled Monday that foreign domestic helpers (FDH) — most of whom are Indonesian or Filipino — cannot apply to settle in the city after their contract is up.
It's the end of a two-year battle that split public opinion in Hong Kong.
"The FDH 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 and that dependents cannot be brought to reside in Hong Kong," said the top court in its judgment, according to AFP.
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For foreign workers who aren't maids, settling in Hong Kong is remarkably easy. Expats who live legally in Hong Kong for seven years are typically granted permanent residency, while maids who have lived and worked in the city for decades are automatically denied.
The two-year saga centered on the case of Evangeline Vallejos, who has lived and worked in Hong Kong for 17 years. Vallejos argued that the policy was unconstitutional discrimination against domestic workers, who are part of the backbone of the economy in Hong Kong.
Five judges on Hong Kong's court of final appeal ruled that Vallejos and co-defendant Daniel Domingo wouldn't be granted permanent residency status, according to Reuters, concluding that maids shouldn't be treated as "ordinary residents" in Hong Kong.
Maids, almost all of whom are women, work six days a week, make $500 a month, and are required to live with their employers. On Sundays, their day off, they can be seen everywhere, sitting on flattened cardboard boxes in parks and on public walkways eating, playing games and socializing.
Hong Kong's affluent professional classes rely heavily on maids to cook, clean and walk their dogs.
Activists said they were disappointed with the ruling, but not surprised.
"We’re not so surprised, but we’re sad because it reaffirms our fear that the decision would probably be based on political considerations rather than merit," said Eman Villanueva, spokesman for the Asian Migrants' Coordinating Body. "Unfortunately there’s no more next step for us legally."
After the court's decision was released, protesters gathered outside the court building holding signs saying "No to social exclusion!" and "Racism and discrimination are social virus!"
Government figures state that around 117,000 maids have resided in Hong Kong for more than seven years, and critics worry that if maids were granted residence, the densely-populated city would be flooded with immigrants, straining public services, notes the Associated Press.
Such fears are exacerbated by the influx of millions of visitors from mainland China to Hong Kong every year.
The maids will continue to be denied voting rights and the right to reside in Hong Kong without a work visa. Permanent residency remains Hong Kong's closest equivalent to citizenship. Dependents of the maids will not be able to seek residency in Hong Kong, either.
Benjamin Carlson contributed to this report from Hong Kong.