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HONG KONG (Reuters) - In a landmark decision Hong Kong's highest court on Monday ruled against granting residency to two Filipino maids, dashing the hopes of several hundred thousand other domestic helpers from ever gaining permanent residency in the city.
Five judges on the Court of Final Appeal ruled unanimously that Evangeline Banao Vallejos and Daniel Domingo would not be allowed to settle permanently in Hong Kong after residing here for over seven years, a period that would ordinarily qualify foreigners to become permanent residents under the constitution.
The court ruled that maids should not be treated as "ordinarily resident" in the financial hub given contracts that tied them to finite stints of temporary employment.
"The nature of foreign domestic helpers' residence in Hong Kong is highly restrictive," the judgment stated. "The foreign domestic helper is obliged to return to the country of origin at the end of the contract and is told from the outset that admission is not for the purposes of settlement."
The controversial legal battle had over the past few years split the city over whether 286,000 of the city's domestic helpers, largely from the Philippines and Indonesia, but also other countries like Nepal, India and Pakistan should be entitled to residency on a par with other foreigners here.
A small group of migrant worker protesters chanted and held placards outside the historic red-brick courthouse, denouncing the ruling as institutionalized discrimination.
"Today is a very sad day for migrant workers in Hong Kong," said Eman Villanueva, the head of Filipino advocacy group United Filipinos, in Hong Kong. "It gave its judicial seal to unfair treatment and the social exclusion of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong."
The ruling also bars dependents of the maids from seeking residency in Hong Kong.
Critics said the economic burden of such an influx could potentially have been huge given education, housing, healthcare and welfare costs. One political party estimated it could cost taxpayers an extra HK$25 billion ($3.2 billion) per year.
Many regular Hong Kong families and expatriates consider a maid essential, many employing a live-in helper who cooks, cleans and helps with child-minding. Maids, however, are excluded from a minimum wage and other basic services.
A lower court had previously ruled the Filipino pair had the right to seek permanent residency in the city.
Despite the government's victory, lingering ambiguity over the eligibility for Hong Kong permanent residency as stipulated in the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, could still trigger further legal battles in future.
Hong Kong, a port city and former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, has always had an uneasy relationship with immigration and right of abode issues that have sometimes strained relations with Beijing.
A 1999 case which ruled mainland China born children had a right of abode in Hong Kong sparked an outcry over Beijing's perceived meddling in the city's judicial independence.
The government had asked Hong Kong's highest court to seek Beijing's clarification on precisely who qualifies for the right of abode, in a bid to resolve this issue once and for all.
The court of final appeal, however, rejected this request.
Reporting by Grace Li, Chris Ip and James Pomfret; Editing by Michael Perry