VANCOUVER, Canada – Leticia Sarmiento broke into tears and was speechless for a moment as I phoned her about the conviction of her former employer, Franco Orr, of 3 counts under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. His wife, Nicole Huen, was acquitted of all charges.
The verdict came at about 9 pm on June 26 after close to 3 days of jury deliberations.
Sentencing is on July 10 and Mr Orr could face a maximum life sentence or a $1 million fine or both.
“Hindi akin lang ang panalo kung hindi sa lahat ng mga kababayan nating inaapi sa labas ng bansa,” Sarmiento told Philippine Asian News Today in a phone interview minutes after the verdict was handed. (The victory is not for me alone but for all countrymen that are oppressed abroad.)
The first conviction of human trafficking in British Columbia history, the trial took 4 weeks and was intensely followed by the media being the first of its kind involving a caregiver.
It is a significant victory not only for Sarmiento but also especially for live-in caregivers (LCP) of this country, the majority of whom are Filipinos.
Advocates have long criticized the program, which requires caregivers to work and live in their employers’ house, which make them vulnerable to abuse.
“Mabuti naman ang nangyayari at ito’y panalo para sa ating lahat. Sana’y magkaroong ng lakas loob ngayon ang ibang pang mga mangagawa na inaapi sa trabaho,” a member of the migrant’s group Migrante told Philippine Asian News Today by phone. (It’s good that this happens and this is a victory for all of us. Hopefully, workers who are exploited will be emboldened by this.)
Sarmiento was brought to Canada by the couple and arrived in Vancouver in September 2008 under a visitor’s visa. She was previously working for them in Hongkong and her contract was still not finished when the family decided to move to Canada after Mr Orr suffered business losses in a Cambodian venture.
Sarmiento testified in court that Mr Orr promised her that he would help her bring her family to Canada. Sarmiento has 3 children in the Philippines whom she had not seen for more than 7 years now except for a few months. She previously worked in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon before working in Hongkong.
Instead of just taking care of the couple’s 3 children, she was made to do household chores and kept in virtual slavery, working 16-hour days with no days off for close to two years.
Fateful 911 call
It was on June 14, 2010, that a heated argument broke between Huen and Sarmiento triggered the call to 911.
The tape of the call was not heard by the jury but was provided to the media hours before the verdict with the prohibition that none of its contents will be released before a decision by the jury.
In it, Sarmiento is heard talking to a 911 operator for more than half an hour, most of the time crying and at times incoherent. She related how Huen threw water and a towel at her after she got upset about Sarmiento giving the wrong kind of milk to one of the children and asked to leave the house.
Huen’s mother, who also lived in the house with the family, asked Sarmiento to go up to the upstairs bathroom where she locked herself and continued talking to the 911 operator.
It was there that police found her when they arrived.
She was taken to the immigration offices at the Vancouver International airport, where officials determined that she was in the country illegally since her visa had expired.
Police brought her to the Salvation Army’s Deborah House women’s shelter.
Workers from the Westcoast Domestics Association helped Sarmiento during the initial investigation and coordinated with her in filing a civil suit against her employers.
That case is still pending and with the criminal case resolved, it is expected that it will now proceed to trial. – Rappler.com
Ted Alcuitas is senior editor of Philippine Asian News Today in Vancouver. He has been closely following the case of Leticia Sarmiento. Rappler is publishing this article and the accompanying photo with his permission.