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Live-in caregiver Leticia Sarmiento arrives at the B.C. Supreme court in downtown Vancouver, May 30, 2013. Sarmiento, a mother of three, is suing her employers to recover the money she claims she's owed after working for them for four years without pay. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press)
Live-in caregiver Leticia Sarmiento arrives at the B.C. Supreme court in downtown Vancouver, May 30, 2013. Sarmiento, a mother of three, is suing her employers to recover the money she claims she's owed after working for them for four years without pay. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press)

Couple disputes nanny’s claim of forced servitude Add to ...

A Filipino nanny who claims to have been kept in domestic servitude in B.C. for nearly two years actually pleaded to keep her job – and relations only soured when she refused to return home to the Philippines, a criminal defence lawyer has told a human trafficking trial.

Nicholas Preovolos, lawyer for Franco Orr and Nicole Huen, began his opening statements in the trial on Tuesday, painting Mr. Orr as a kind-hearted man who kept Leticia Sarmiento employed despite having suffered a “catastrophic business failure.”

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The couple hired Ms. Sarmiento and another nanny in August, 2007, Mr. Preovolos told the jury in B.C. Supreme Court. At that time, the couple – living in Hong Kong – had two young girls, Ms. Huen was pregnant with a third, and Mr. Orr travelled between Hong Kong and Cambodia frequently for his work with a real-estate development company he had formed with a partner.

In May, 2008, Mr. Orr learned his partner had diverted about $250,000 (U.S.) from the company, Mr. Preovolos told the court. A plan to build a townhouse complex in Phnom Penh suddenly crumbled and, the following month, Mr. Orr flew home from Cambodia for the last time, crying on the plane. In court, Mr. Orr leaned over and sobbed as Mr. Preovolos recounted the tale.

Soon after, Mr. Orr told both nannies he could no longer afford to pay them and they would need to look for new employment, Mr. Preovolos said.

The other nanny went elsewhere, but Ms. Sarmiento, who had two prior terminations on her record, was worried about her employment prospects, the court heard.

When the couple spoke of temporarily bringing the family to Vancouver, where Ms. Huen’s family lives and Mr. Orr could explore job opportunities, Ms. Sarmiento “pleaded” to join them, Mr. Preovolos said.

“[Mr. Orr] and his wife discussed the predicament that they were in with Ms. Sarmiento,” the lawyer said. “They felt that it wouldn’t hurt if … they let her stay on for a while, at least to work out more of her contract, that it would be better for her, and that it would be helpful, to some degree, for them, and not overly costly.”

Mr. Orr accompanied Ms. Sarmiento to the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong, where she submitted her own visa application, Mr. Preovolos said.

The group arrived in Vancouver on Sept. 10, 2008, and Ms. Sarmiento “continued to perform under the terms of her Hong Kong work permit,” Mr. Preovolos said. “The children loved her, she was like a member of the family, she joined the family on outings and there were no issues.”

The problems arose six months later, when the visa expired and Ms. Sarmiento refused to go home, the defence claimed.

“What you will hear is that there was a ticket for her to leave that she did not want to use,” Mr. Preovolos said. “You will hear that she begged to stay longer and Mr. Orr agreed to help her at least apply for a visa extension. That visa extension was made and denied.”

The defence called the first of several witnesses on Tuesday, including an account manager at a bank who could not open an account for Ms. Sarmiento because she had only one piece of identification: her passport. This appears to contradict her claims from earlier in the trial that Ms. Huen had taken her passport after the visit to the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong to prevent her from fleeing.

Another witness, who helped the family move from a Vancouver residence to a Richmond residence, said there was no key or keypad code required to exit either home, as Ms. Sarmiento had claimed.

“So if the front door was closed, and you were on the inside, how would you open it?” Mr. Preovolos asked.

He replied: “Just turn the knob.”

Ms. Sarmiento had claimed she was tricked into moving to Canada on the promise she would become a permanent resident after two years and the couple would help bring her family over from the Philippines. Instead, she says she was forced to work 16 hours a day, with no days off, taking care of the children and doing all the housework. The couple refused to let her out of the home, she said.

The trial continues.

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