HONG KONG, October 2, 2011 (AFP) – About 500 Hong Kong people on Sunday rallied to protest against a landmark court ruling which could allow thousands of foreign maids the right to permanent residency.

The successful legal challenge brought by Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a Philippine domestic worker who has lived in Hong Kong since 1986, has divided opinion in the Chinese city and prompted debate over equal treatment.

The High Court on Friday ruled that immigration laws barring domestic workers – mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia – from settling permanently violated Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law.

“We don’t want (the maids) to come to Hong Kong permanently, they will take away our social benefits,” protester Dennis Leung, 38, said after the demonstrators marched through the city centre to the government offices.

“We don’t think this is discrimination. We have rules, they come to Hong Kong just to make money,” said the teacher, as he chanted slogans such as “We oppose permanent residency for foreign maids” and “We are worried”.

Foreigners can apply to settle in Hong Kong after seven years of uninterrupted residency, gaining access to voting rights and the right to live in the city without a work visa. Maids were specifically excluded.

With permanent residency a domestic worker would no longer be tied to an employer, could take any job and have access to benefits such as public housing.

The government is appealing against the court ruling.

Sunday’s protest was led by the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, which said the ruling could worsen unemployment and cost billions of dollars in social welfare spending.

The party has collected more than 90,000 signatures opposing granting foreign maids the right. Official figures showed 117,000 foreign maids are entitled to apply for permanent residency.

Despite the court decision, foreign maids—like other expats—must still fulfil other criteria before gaining residency rights, including proving they planned to make Hong Kong their permanent home.

Activists and the governments of the Philippines and Indonesia have hailed the ruling as a victory for equal treatment, with Jakarta saying it was “a benchmark” for other countries to follow.