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 jeopardizing 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."
Ms. 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.
Lawyer Mark Daly, who represents the helpers, said Ms. Vallejos was "speechless," but respected the decision.
Justice Minister Rimsky Yuen said Hong Kong would "remain a cosmopolitan society which will embrace all different nationalities" despite the ruling.