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Hong Kong's top court Monday rejected a bid to give hundreds of thousands of foreign maids the right to live in the city permanently, angering activists who said the ruling amounted to discrimination.
In turning down the attempt to give maids the same residency rights as other foreigners, the Court of Final Appeal ruled that there was no need to refer the case to Beijing for a final say, which would have sparked new controversy.
Officials in semi-autonomous Hong Kong had suggested enlisting the advice of the Chinese central government on the immigration question, sparking warnings that they were jeopardising the territory's cherished judicial independence.
But the top court drew a line under the matter by rejecting the two-year legal challenge first brought by Filipina maid Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a 61-year-old mother of five who has lived in Hong Kong since 1986.
"With the court's ruling today, it gave its judicial seal to unfair treatment and the social exclusion of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong," said Eman Villanueva, spokesman for labour rights group Asian Migrants' Coordinating Body.
He was joined by other members of his group outside court chanting "No to discrimination" and "We are not slaves".
Vallejos won a High Court ruling in 2011 granting her the right to request permanent residency status, which most foreigners can seek after seven years' stay but which is denied to the city's 300,000 foreign domestic helpers.
Activists had hailed the ruling as a big step for equal rights for maids, who are a backbone of society in richer Asian economies and a financial lifeline to their home nations, notably the Philippines and Indonesia.
But the Court of Final Appeal unanimously sided with arguments from the Hong Kong government, which said it should enjoy discretionary power to decide on residency.
Pro-government figures had warned that the city of seven million would be swamped by up to half a million new immigrants, including the maids' children and spouses, if the appeal was allowed.
"The FDH (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 and that dependents cannot be brought to reside in Hong Kong," the top court said in a 49-page judgment.
The ruling means maids will continue to be specifically excluded from eligibility to settle in Hong Kong, which would give them access to voting rights and the right to live in the former British colony without a work visa.
Lawyer Mark Daly, who represents the helpers, said Vallejos was "speechless" but respected the decision. Vallejos was not in court Monday.
Justice Minister Rimsky Yuen said Hong Kong would "remain a cosmopolitan society which will embrace all different nationalities" despite the ruling.
Hong Kong's foreign maids receive a minimum wage of HK$3,920 (US$505) a month and benefits such as one guaranteed day off a week, but rights groups say they face discrimination and a lack of legal protection from abusive employers.
The Vallejos case threw new light on Hong Kong's often uneasy relationship with authorities in mainland China and the full extent of the territory's autonomy under its mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law.
While there have been repeated outcries from the Hong Kong public against perceived mainland interference, the southern city's own government stands accused of undermining its autonomy by seeking Beijing's adjudication.
That was the case regarding a long-running legal question about children of Hong Kong permanent residents from mainland China, which like the foreign maids case had created anxiety over the potential strain on the city.