Right of Abode in Hong Kong

Anyone who has stayed for any time in Hong Kong has encountered its second-class residents going about their daily business. They trundle the kids off to school, cook, do the marketing, scrub floors and generally make life manageable for the territory’s first-class citizens.

Sometimes staying for decades, the helpers of Hong Kong are as much a part of life in the territory as dim sum or high-rise office towers. For a great many families, while mom and dad are busy selling real estate or teaching at the university, Ibu Noni from Surabaya or Lita from Leyte are running the apartment and raising the kids.

Until such time, of course, that the family is done with them and they have no further job in the territory. Then, like no other class of foreign worker, the helpers of Hong Kong, no matter how long they have been living in the city, had had to go home because the law explicitly excludes them from the right to earn permanent residency with their labor. A wise and groundbreaking ruling by a Hong Kong judge Friday may change all that.

It’s Called Life

These women, most of them Indonesian or Filipino, often build entire lives in the territory — they cram social engagements, religious duties, fun and small side-businesses into their days off and limited free time. You can see them keep a fleeting appointment with a friend in the middle of the day as they drop junior off for violin lessons or gather in the wet market to haggle in Cantonese for provisions. But on Sundays they come alive, crowding the sidewalks and open spaces of the city, sharing meals and gossip, trading tales of good employers and bad — Filipinos take over the Central district; Indonesians largely dominate Victoria Park and its surrounding neighborhood of Causeway Bay.

They fall in love, cook, loan money, sometimes cheat each other and also offer astounding acts of kindness to newcomers and those down on their luck. In short, they are just like any other hard-working group of people making their way in a vast city.

Often they are victims of crooked employment agencies, looked upon with suspicion by the police and have few rights, yet they carry on. The money is very good by village standards, they send most of it home for loved ones but also, away from the prying eyes of the family and social pressures, many domestic helpers find a freedom in Hong Kong they never knew before. They like it there.

I have known Indonesian and Filipino maids in Hong Kong who say they can no longer face the village, because life there is too restrictive. In Hong Kong, they say, they discovered what it was like to do as they please. To be sure, many long to return home but others are no different from any wandering expat — they find a new world and reinvent themselves within it.

Who Qualifies?

Other foreigners — copy editors, musicians, investment bankers, anyone really — are covered under a provision of the Basic Law, the so-called mini-constitution that has guided the territory since it was handed back to China by Great Britain in 1997. It says permanent residency is a right granted to “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 not less than seven years and have taken Hong Kong as their place of permanent residence.”

It could not be clearer, which is why Friday’s ruling in favor of a petition brought by a Filipina domestic helper is such a welcome breath of fresh air. Having been a maid in Hong Kong since 1986, Evangeline Banao Vallejos made herself a test case. Backed by the considerable political skills of domestic helper organizations with roots in the activist tradition of the Philippines, her bid for permanent residency could change the future for a significant number of Hong Kong’s 292,000 maids. If they like it in Hong Kong, if they live their lives there, they just might be able to stay there, just like any other resident. No wonder both the Indonesian and Philippine governments praised the ruling — it recognizes the dignity of their people.

This is revolutionary. Maids might no longer be disposable for places like Hong Kong — and Singapore — where it is quite okay to import women from the kampungs of Indonesia and barrios of the Philippines, pay them a pittance by local standards and leave them with no options when they are of no further use. Indeed, it is sadly common and deeply ironic in Hong Kong to hear the wealthy speak of the treachery of Filipinos and Indonesians, when they entrust their children to be raised by these same undesirables.

Nonetheless, it speaks well of the Hong Kong courts that despite fearful protests by pro-government political parties warning of a presumed tidal wave of impoverished Indonesian and Filipino relatives overburdening government services, the court saw that excluding just one group of people, maids, from the Basic Law was, simply, unconstitutional.

Now What?

The judge in the case, Johnson Lam of the Court of First Instance, rebuffed government arguments that maids could not be permanent residents because they have significant ties to their home countries, something that is true of almost any foreign resident anywhere. “The mere maintenance of [a] link with her country of origin does not mean that [a maid] is not ordinarily resident in Hong Kong,” Lam wrote.

Of course, this is just Round One and the government is likely to appeal the ruling or drown maids in contract restrictions that could prevent them in the future from being able to work in Hong Kong for seven consecutive years. The government could also refer the matter for a ruling from higher communist authorities in Beijing, as happened in a controversial 1999 right of abode case involving children of Hong Kong residents born in mainland China. If that happens, it would further erode the rule of law in the territory and weaken what are still arguably the best courts in Asia.

For now, I have no idea if Evangeline Vallejos or any of the tens of thousands of women in a similar predicament will eventually earn the right to live in the city of their choice. But it is certainly true that Friday’s court ruling made Hong Kong and the rest of the region pause, however briefly, to consider these tough, hard-working women, their honest toil and their rights.

It’s about time.

(A. Lin Neumann is a founder of the Asia Sentinel. He is a senior advisor to the Jakarta Globe, in which this originally appeared.)