HONG KONG - Hong Kong's highest court began hearing an appeal on Tuesday to decide whether about 300,000 foreign domestic helpers, mostly from the Philippines, should have the right to apply for permanent residency.
Under Hong Kong's constitution, foreigners are entitled to permanent residency - which brings the rights to vote, claim welfare and other services - if they have lived there for an uninterrupted seven years.
Immigration law, however, denies that right to foreigners who work as home helpers, most of whom are from the Philippines and Indonesia.
The lawsuit was initially launched by Filipino maid Evangeline Banao Vallejos, who scored a victory in September 2011 when a lower court ruled that she had the right to seek permanent residency in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong government then won an appeal in March 2012 when the court ruled that the helpers' stays in Hong Kong are "highly regulated so as to ensure that they are here to fulfill the special, limited purpose for which they have been allowed to come here in the first place, and no more."
Vallejos did not appear in court on Tuesday. Her lawyer Mark Daly said on Monday that she would not show up for the three-day hearing.
Shortly before Tuesday's hearing began seven activists from the group United Filipinos in Hong Kong Migrante (Unifil Migrante) displayed placards calling for inclusion.
Its General Secretary, Eman Villanueva, said he hoped the court would rule in the domestic workers' favor.
"At the very core of this issue is equal treatment in Hong Kong. We've always asked why are other foreign workers in Hong Kong given the right to apply for permanent residency after (living in Hong Kong) seven years, and why this same right is not given to foreign domestic workers," Villanueva said.
Most wealthy Hong Kong residents and expatriates consider a maid essential, many employing a live-in helper who cooks, cleans and helps with child-minding.
But not all foreign domestic helpers would apply for residency, even if given that right.
Live-in Filipino domestic helper Jovita Mabborang has worked in Hong Kong for 11 years.
She visits the market every day for ingredients to cook dinner for a family of four and makes about HK$3,700 (477 U.S. dollars) every month.
A mother of a 10-year-old boy, Mabborang considers Hong Kong a good place to work but ultimately wants to go home to stay with her family.
"And then a lot of Filipinos like to stay here, because our salary is quite high. Maybe about the residency, maybe I prefer to go back to home, to Philippines, to stay together with my family," Mabborang said.
Every Sunday, hundreds of Filipino domestic workers gather under iconic buildings in the city's central business district during their day off.
One of them, Elizabeth Mendoza, said she wanted to apply for residency and bring her family to the city where she has worked for 17 years.
"It's easy to find a job, and easy to do everything that you like. You are free, you have freedom. That's the reason," Mendoza said.
After the latest hearing is completed on Thursday (February 28), the court of final appeal will consider the case for several weeks before its decision.
Even if the court rules in favour of the foreign maids, their decision may not be the last in the case.
In 1999, a ruling by Hong Kong's highest court that granted the right of abode to many Chinese citizens was later overturned by China's top legal body, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.