Asia’s human rights record has been far from stellar. Governments are known to be repressive and authoritative by Western standards. Citizens are oppressed, disenfranchised, and at times, even tortured. These are, however, the more traditional and conventional issues that arise when democracy and human rights in this region are discussed.

As growth in Asia intensifies, so does the need for more workers to fuel the growth of the economy. Not just highly-skilled workers, but lowly-skilled workers especially. Rapid urbanization and infrastructure needs have resulted in the influx of foreign workers into Asian countries. Most of these foreign workers are from less developed nations such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

In recent years, the plight of foreign workers has been in the spotlight, both as a source of diplomatic tension between states (for instance, Malaysia and Indonesia) and also as a case for protection against abuse. However, little has been done on the part of governments to institutionalize foreign workers into host countries as residents, in order to guarantee the protection of their rights. Individuals too, have been seen to champion the cause for protecting the rights of these workers, but the tangible benefits that the workers actually receive remains to be seen.

Thus, the recent series of events that have unraveled in Hong Kong are remarkable.

Two days ago, AFP reported that a landmark court ruling in Hong Kong has given Indonesian and Filipina maids the right and chance to apply for permanent residency.

From AFP:

Now a landmark court ruling has given them a chance to apply for permanent residency — but the decision, which has polarised opinions in the southern Chinese city, has also prompted different reactions among maids themselves.

Foreigners can seek permanent residency in Hong Kong after seven years of uninterrupted stay, gaining rights to vote and to live in the city without a work visa.

There are as many as 292,000 foreign maids in the city, but they were specifically excluded from being allowed to apply. In the first case of its kind in Asia, the city’s High Court ruled on Friday that the provision was unconstitutional.

Permanent residency would mean a domestic worker was no longer tied to a single employer, but could take any job and access benefits such as public housing.

Providing a reprieve of a rather different nature, a good Samaritan in Singapore has helped more than 100 foreign workers by offering them a place to stay.

From The New Paper:

American Debbie Fordyce, 57, has helped more than 100 foreign workers by letting them live in her condo unit over the last three years.

They stay for anywhere from a few months to a year, as long as it takes for their affairs here to be sorted out.

The widow, who volunteers full-time with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) to help migrant workers here, told The New Paper that she does so out of a moral imperative.

“I don’t get anything out of it except perhaps the pleasure of their company. None of the workers I meet can afford to spend $200 a month on a place to stay,” she said.

The mother of four, whose children live overseas, said: “I have a big house. My children have left home. It makes sense to for me to let the workers stay here.

“I’d like to ask why aren’t other people doing the same?”

These events present some sort of consolation for human rights activists. Although there are many non-governmental organizations in Asia that focus on the welfare of foreign workers – and are doing well – these two events are perhaps a watershed. One is a legal provision that signifies a serious protection of the rights of foreign workers; while the other offers more tangible and direct, rather than symbolic, benefits for these workers.