Hong Kong's War against Domestic Helpers

The Hong Kong government seems set on ensuring that its ethnocentric instincts trump the rule of law.

Following a court decision that gave right of abode (permanent residence) to a maid from the Philippines who has been living in the territory for 25 years, the government has indicated that it would not only take the case to the Court of Appeal and, Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal but if necessary to Beijing to have the judgment overturned by the National People's Congress. No Communist government imagines that it should be subservient to constitutional process interpreted by judges so the NPC would rubber stamp the Hong Kong government's preference for putting its decisions above the rule of law.

Meanwhile the government is drumming up populist opposition to the grant of abode for long-resident maids by suggesting that they will be a huge flood which would swamp the territory and bring with them their families, undercut wages and inundate schools and hospitals. There are some 300,000 foreign domestic helpers, as the maids are technically known, of whom about 100,000 have been there for the minimum seven years required before they might become eligible for abode. Most are from the Philippines and Indonesia with a few from South Asia -- only brown Asians apparently qualify to be maids.

In reality the legal position is much more nuanced than indicated by the government's scare tactics. The judgment in no way implies that all those who had been resident for seven years or more are entitled to abode. It simply declares that the Immigration law excluding domestic helpers from applying for right of abode is illegal as it is contrary to the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution. The Basic Law Article 24 (4) states very simply that permanent residents include:

"Persons not of Chinese nationality who have entered Hong Kong with valid travel documents, have ordinarily resided in Hong Kong for a continuous period of seven years and have taken Hong Kong as their place of permanent residence"

The immigration law sought to prevent this applying to one class of persons, the domestic helpers, although the Basic Law made no such provision. But clearly there is scope for interpretation of the phrase "have taken Hong Kong as their place of permanent residence" and most helpers might well fail to satisfy this.

In reality the Hong Kong government has been happy to hand out right of abode to almost anyone else who has fulfilled the seven years residency and renews such rights for them so long as they visit occasionally even though their actual home is in Canada or wherever. Thus foreign bankers, teachers, journalists, traders etc are never questioned about whether they have actually made Hong Kong their home rather than simply been living there for a number of years. Permanent as opposed to temporary residence conveys rights to remain unless convicted of a major crime and have access to public amenities and welfare.

The government could well argue that few helpers, regardless of their length of stay, have actually made Hong Kong their home. But to do would imply that they would have to apply the same criteria to the bankers, teachers etc, most of whom keep their main residence in Europe, North America. Not being low-paid brown Asians, these people get a free pass on what constitutes "home".

It is also questionable whether many helpers would actually want to stay permanently. They are there to earn money for their families back home and if they want permanent migration, most aspire to Canada or Australia. But such issues do not concern an unpopular government desperate to find a populist cause to latch on to.

There is certainly a groundswell of popular sentiment against the helpers getting abode, much of its created by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) the Communist party's local surrogate. It plays to a real concern that Hong Kong is too crowded already and that low-skill migrants from the mainland are already are a burden on the territory. But instead of arguing that low-paid helpers are undercutting the wages of low skill local people -- which is obviously the case -- the DAB and other pro-government politicians make what amounts to a race-based case against the helpers. The reality is that Hong Kong's middle class (and lower) wants it both ways. It wants access to cheap and disposable foreign labor without having to grant these people normal rights. Helpers now constitute 7 percent of the Hong Kong workforce.

Hong Kong may think that this is just a local matter. But it should not be surprised that its racist assumptions are now getting international exposure. Even without the helper issue, Hong Kong has a poor record of treatment of minorities other than whites and those from 'Confucian' countries such as Korea. Permanent identity card symbols in practice discriminate between ethnic Chinese and others. Hong Kong is forever alert to the slightest suggestion of discrimination, past or present against Chinese in the US or Canada, and justifiably condemning anti-Chinese policies in Malaysia. But its own dubious practices are now beginning to get some attention just at a time when suspicions of Beijing's assumptions of superiority are increasingly troubling its southern neighbors.