Hong Kong Foreign Labor Law Challenged

Posted on 22 August 2011


AUGUST 22, 2011

HONG KONG—A landmark labor suit, filed by a Filipina domestic helper seeking permanent residency in Hong Kong, has struck at the core of the territory’s often fraught relationship with its guest workers, and raised fundamental questions about its judicial independence from Beijing.

Evangeline Banao Vallejos has worked in Hong Kong since 1986, most of that time for the same family. If she were any other foreign worker, such as a banker, lawyer or teacher, she would automatically win the right to permanent residency after seven years. But a separate ordinance in the law states that domestic helpers are excluded from this right. She filed for residency in 2008, and is challenging the law in court.

Diana Jou/The Wall Street Journal
Foreign domestic workers gather in Central, Hong Kong, to perform songs and dances.

Permanent residency in Hong Kong means a person can remain in the territory indefinitely, and they cannot be deported, according to the Basic Law. They also win the right to vote and to stand in elections.

Human-rights advocates say a ruling in favor of Ms. Vallejos would represent a significant step toward dismantling the system that treats domestic workers as second-tier residents.

“Basically, the work that domestic helpers are doing—looking after the children, looking after the elderly, doing the cooking and cleaning, allowing the Hong Kong people to be able to work full-time—is a very significant contribution to Hong Kong’s economy,” said Danilo Brolado, a pastor at the New Beginnings Christian Fellowship.

Lam Thuy Vo/The Wall Street Journal
Benita Gebaya, who is from the Philippines, works as a helper in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s current labor laws exclude the more than 270,000 domestic workers living in the territory. Foreign laborers are widely seen as integral to the territory’s way of life, with middle- to upper-class residents hiring helpers—typically women from the Philippines and Indonesia— to handle household duties and help with child care.

Working conditions for domestic helpers can vary greatly, with little to no oversight by the government. Most live with their employers, who are required to give their helpers at least one day off each week, though advocacy groups say the time-off requirement isn’t always honored. The government-mandated minimum wage for domestic helpers is 3,740 Hong Kong dollars (about US$480) a month, including rudimentary room and board.

Opponents of the effort to amend the labor law say prospect of allowing domestic workers to stay permanently would lead to an influx of migrants and their families, straining Hong Kong’s resources.

“All this will pose a lot of effects on Hong Kong society as a whole—on the job market, public housing, welfare and education,” says Starry Lee, a lawmaker in the pro-Beijing party Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong.

Ms. Lee says 100,000 workers would qualify for permanent residency, a figure that couldn’t be confirmed and which worker advocates dispute. Hong Kong’s Immigration Department refused to disclose the number, citing the ongoing litigation.

“What’s at stake is the credibility of Hong Kong, of treating all residents of Hong Kong equally,” says Holly Allan, manager of the nonprofit organization Helpers for Domestic Helpers. She says the current system makes domestic workers vulnerable to abuse from employers, as well as predatory employment agencies, because losing a job means possible deportation.

In a legal twist that is worrying some experts, politicians in the territory are calling for the court to refer the case to Beijing authorities under a rarely used provision of the Basic Law. Skeptics say such referrals undermine the Hong Kong judiciary’s independence.

Lam Thuy Vo/The Wall Street Journal
Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong—mostly Philippine and Indonesian women—gather in the atrium of the HSBC building Saturday, a ritual for many of the city’s more than 270,000 domestic helpers.

Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker who says she would prefer to send the case to the mainland, dismisses concerns over Hong Kong’s legal system, saying that the provision about consulting Beijing is part of the Basic Law.

Others see a referral to Beijing as an abdication of responsibility and a troubling sign that Hong Kong’s courts will more and more turn to Beijing rather than rule on potentially unpopular decisions.

“If they are not going to uphold and respect the courts and they are going to Beijing for a reinterpretation…you can effectively then take the Basic Law and rip it up,” says Mark Daly, the lawyer representing Ms. Vallejos.

Benita Gebaya, 45 years old, worked for more than seven years in Hong Kong before returning to the Philippines in 2002 to start a family. She has been back in Hong Kong for nearly the past two years and recently parted ways with her employer. Despite her previous tenure, she has only two weeks from her last day of work to find a new job before she loses her right to stay.

“If the government will push through this right to abode, it’s good for us,” she says. “We could have freedom and we could work not only as a domestic worker.” Ms. Gebaya has her sights set on moving to Canada, where she can become a citizen after three years and bring her family there.

Juliet, 46, a domestic helper from the Philippines who declined to give her last name, says the current law is “quite discriminatory.” Her employers, French fashion executives, qualify for permanent residency after seven years, while she never can.

Hong Kong is “looking down on us,” she said. “Without us, most of our employers couldn’t work,” she added.
—Diana Jou contributed to this article.