HONG KONG (AP) — A Filipino maid in Hong Kong won the opening legal battle in her fight for permanent residency after a court ruled Friday that an immigration provision excluding the city's hundreds of thousands of foreign maids was unconstitutional.
It was a major legal victory in a case that has divided the city with accusations of ethnic discrimination against the foreign maids, most of whom are from the Philippines or Indonesia. The government said it would appeal. If not overturned, the ruling could clear the way for applications from the city's 292,000 foreign maids, including at least 117,000 who would be eligible right away.
Justice Johnson Lam, ruling in the Court of First Instance, said the immigration provision denying the maids the right to gain permanent residency after seven years — as other foreign residents can — was inconsistent with the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution.
Government lawyers had argued that because of conditions linked to their employment, the maids could not be considered to have the same "ordinarily resident" status as other foreign residents.
Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a foreign domestic helper who has worked in the city since 1986, launched the judicial review last year after her bid for permanent residency was rejected.
"To be clear, Ms. Vallejos won on the unconstitutionality of the provisions," said Mark Daly, one of the lawyers handling her case.
Vallejos "said thank God" after learning the outcome, Daly said. "She's busy working so she has no time to be here today," he said.
Hong Kong is home to numerous bankers, lawyers, teachers and other foreign workers who can apply after seven years for permanent residency, which is the closest thing that the special administrative region of China has to citizenship.
As of Dec. 31, 2010, 117,000 of the city's foreign maids had been in Hong Kong for more than seven years, Lam's ruling said, citing government figures.
Daly said even if the maids are allowed to apply, not all may do so because they still have to fulfill certain conditions, "which in some cases can be onerous." They may also hesitate because of Hong Kong's high cost of living and because they don't want to leave behind their relatives, said Dolores Balladeres, chairwoman of United Filipinos in Hong Kong.
Permanent residency holders can vote, change jobs and cannot be deported.
The case has divided opinion in Hong Kong, with some arguing that immigration provisions barring maids from applying amounts to ethnic discrimination. The maids are mostly women and come from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. About 95 percent of Hong Kong's 7.1 million people are ethnically Chinese.
The maids are a big source of help to the middle and upper classes of Hong Kong, where it's common for families to employ one or more to live with them to do household chores and look after children.
But many complain that giving the maids permanent residency would result in an influx of their family members, which would put a strain on the densely populated city's housing, schools and other resources.
Several dozen people protested outside the courthouse against the maids and their supporters as the ruling was released. They carried placards accusing Filipinos of stealing jobs and chanted "Civic Party betrayed Hong Kong!" — a reference to pro-democracy legislators who backed the maids.
Last year, about 120,000 of Hong Kong's foreign maids were from the Philippines, according to Philippine government figures. Indonesians account for much of the rest, but exact figures weren't available.
The maids are paid a minimum monthly wage of Hong Kong 3,740 dollars ($480 dollars) and work six days a week. The money they send home is a big source of income for their families.
According to the Philippine government, workers in Hong Kong accounted for $312 million of the $18.8 billion sent home by expatriate workers last year, or about 10 percent of the country's annual gross domestic product.
Both sides will return to court on Oct. 26, when the government will apply for the ruling to be temporarily suspended while it appeals, Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee said.
Two similar cases involving five Filipino helpers are set to go before the courts in October.