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Hong Kong foreign workers hold vigil for permanent residency

posted 23 Oct 2011, 09:12 by Mpelembe   [ updated 23 Oct 2011, 09:12 ]

Hundreds of foreign workers and supporters hold a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong in support of a controversial court judgement allowing them to apply for permanent residency which has met with strong opposition from the government and unions.

HONG KONG, CHINA (OCTOBER 23, 2011)  REUTERS - Several hundred foreign domestic workers and supporters gathered in central Hong Kong on Sunday (October 23) for a candlelight vigil calling amidst controversy surrounding a court judgement supporting their right to permanent residency.

Migrant worker groups, labour unions and catholic priests rallied for equal rights and called for an end to discrimination against migrant domestic helpers.

On September 30, a Filipino domestic helper won a legal battle to apply for permanent residency in Hong Kong, a landmark case in the island city that counts tens of thousands of foreign domestic workers.

The High Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny foreign maids the right of residency even though many were employed on short term, two year contracts, that are often repeatedly renewed.

In response, the Hong Kong government said it would not only take the case to the Court of Appeal, but may also ask Beijing to have the judgement overturned, as the final interpreter of the city's constitution.

Opponents argue that foreign domestic workers enter into employment in Hong Kong under different work visa arrangements and should not be eligible to apply for permanent residency after seven years, like other expatriate workers.

Under Hong Kong's constitution, foreigners are entitled to permanent residency - and with it, rights to voting, welfare and other services - if they have resided here for a continuous period of seven years.

"There's something wrong with this kind of argument. That's to say because we came here as domestic workers we are not going through the normal channels is totally wrong. That is exactly what the court said. We are living here ordinarily in Hong Kong, the same as other workers. And I think that is the concept that those groups who are opposing it doesn't want to accept," said Eman Villanueva, vice chairman of the Migrant Worker's Union.

Many Hong Kong residents have been calling on the court not to grant the right of abode, citing fears that it would open the floodgate to thousands of other workers wanting to claim residency.

"Another thing is that there will be no influx. Why? Because we are already here. Foreign domestic workers are already in Hong Kong so there will be no more influx. We are already, you know, accessing the healthcare in Hong Kong, we are contributing a lot to the Hong Kong society. So I don't understand why many people are actually feeding the public wrong information about this so-called influx. We are already here. We are already part of the Hong Kong society so there is actually nothing to be afraid of," said Villanueva.

Of the 290,000 foreign workers in Hong Kong, about 117,000 have been working continuously for more than seven years.

The Hong Kong High Court last week reserved judgement in a second judicial review over whether foreign domestic helpers should be allowed to apply for right of abode in Hong Kong.

The applicants, a married Filipino couple who have been living in Hong Kong for 30 years, were granted unconditional stay 4 years ago, and will become eligible for permanent residency by 2014 after fulfilling the 7-year residence requirement.

But the couple said the authorities had wrongly ignored their previous stay of 2 decades, and that they should be granted right of abode now.

Another two cases will be heard next week, and migrants right activists are watching how the court will decide.

Hong Kong's immigration department said it will not process any applications for residency from foreign domestic workers until the government appeals the court's decision.

"Actually, there is a court decision that we can apply for the right of abode in Hong Kong which the government is reversing. But according to the Hong Kong basic law that we are entitled to the right of abode in Hong Kong. So actually the Hong Kong government is discriminating us aggravational and also they're racist. So that's why we are fighting for the rights and we will fight until we won," said Nishadi Warabidiya, a foreign domestic worker from Sri Lanka who has worked in Hong Kong for 12 years.

Earlier in the day around a thousand protesters from trade unions and other concern groups marched onto the government headquarters to voice their opposition to the court's decision.