Court begins hearing on maid's petition on 'live-in' rule

October 04, 2017 15:56
A Hong Kong court is looking into a petition that challenges the legality of a rule that forces foreign domestic workers to live with their employers. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong's High Court began hearing arguments on Tuesday on a legal challenge brought by a domestic helper against a "live-in" rule that foreign maids are subjected to in this city.

Nancy Almorin Lubiano, a Filipino maid who has been working in Hong Kong since 2001, filed a petition last year, saying the current requirement for foreign domestic helpers to live with their employers is discriminatory, and that it goes against the Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights.

Seeking a judicial review, Lubiano argued that the live-in rule marks breach of a ban on forced labor in the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, and that it deprives maids of their rights to a fixed number of working hours and rest time.

In her writ, Lubiano insisted that the Director of Immigration is not entitled to impose the condition that maids must live in their employers' homes, news website reports.

Forcing maids to live with their employers not only makes the former vulnerable to abuse and invasion of privacy, it also makes it harder for the workers to maintain social contacts with other people or seek outside help when necessary, she said.

The Filipino said she hopes her plea against the requirement can end up giving foreign maids a choice as to where they want to live. 

Workers should be allowed to decide for themselves if they want to live in their employers' homes or take up residence outside, Lubiano argued in the petition.

Under the current system, the Director of Immigration has the authority to put restrictions on conditions of domestic helpers' stay. A person who refuses to accept the condition can be denied a work visa, while those who are employed but violate the rule can face criminal prosecution or see their visa extension bids turned down.

During the hearing, a judge doubted whether the live-in requirement would affect the work status of domestic helpers; for instance, whether the live-in requirement would reduce a domestic helper's chance to take up jobs other than what they were hired for.

But former Hong Kong Bar Association chairman and senior counsel Paul Shieh Wing-tai, who represents Lubiano and calls the case a challenge to the system, disagreed with that, saying the government should not interfere with foreign maids' private life just to achieve the purposes of monitoring and maintaining security.

As such, the department has acted beyond its authority, Shieh claimed.

Citing a 2016 survey on foreign maids’ life in Hong Kong, Shieh said over 35 percent of the workers have no independent space to live in but have to share a room with an elderly person or a child, with some even forced to live in the kitchen.

He also pointed out that some maids had in fact been allowed to live in places other than employers’ homes before the requirement went into effect in 2003.

There is no doubt that many maids are hoping to enjoy similar flexible rules now, he said, pointing out that there are as many as 350,000 foreign domestic workers now in Hong Kong.

Hearing the petition, the judge said it is irrelevant as to how many maids actually wish to move out of their employers’ place. The court will just consider whether the live-in requirement is legal and constitutional, he said.

The hearings will continue.

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