What Domestic Workers Tell Us about Asia

This week Hong Kong’s highest court decided unanimously that domestic workers were not entitled to permanent residency status, regardless of any worker’s support network or length of stay.  Most Hong Kong legal residents were relieved by the decision.

The impact of this case will likely be widespread.  From a legal perspective, Hong Kong’s highest court attempted to walk a tightrope – following the traditions of common law still practiced there while simultaneously corresponding with PRC legal guidance and political preferences.  However, the decision against the permanent residence of domestic workers will continue to have legal repercussions.  Domestic workers do enjoy some legal protections – like a minimum wage – but employment laws are a constant threat to their legal status. 

On the political front, the case highlights a trend in Hong Kong whereby permanent residents seek to visibly communicate the distinctions between resident and outsider.  Hong Kong has become a more difficult place to visit for many in the developing world – a process relating to refugee issues and transnational trade (for more information please read Gordon Mathews’ fascinating work on Chungking Mansions – Ghetto at the Center of the World).  Tensions between Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese are on the rise, as waves of Mainland tourists have challenged residency laws and altered the makeup of communities.

The court decision also signifies a change in what Hong Kong means for the whole of East Asia.  The city has long served as a haven for foreign capital and had attracted hundreds of thousands of foreigners.  This case was thought by some to be a means by which to further the expansion of legal protections for foreigners and help in the development of a truly multi-ethnic Hong Kong.

Overall, this court case highlights a developing problem in Hong Kong – how to continue to be a focal point of international capital, while remaining a distinct polity.  Furthermore, Hong Kong’s struggle in defining itself is part of a larger regional process, as many states seek to find their footing in a rapidly changing East Asia.     

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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