Hong Kong man convicted of human trafficking in Vancouver

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 June, 2013, 4:32pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 12:52am

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A Hong Kong man who brought his Filipino maid with his family when they moved to Vancouver has been convicted of human trafficking in a landmark verdict.

A jury in the British Columbia Supreme Court also found Franco Orr Yiu-kwan, 50, guilty of illegally employing a foreign national, as well as immigration breaches. His partner, Nicole Huen Oi-ling, was acquitted of human trafficking and the lesser charges.

Defence lawyer Nicholas Preovolos told the Canadian Press news agency after the Wednesday night verdict that his clients were “in shock, frankly they’re stunned”. Orr’s trafficking conviction could carry a life sentence, although Preovolos said he would argue for a non-custodial conditional sentence.

This is the first human trafficking conviction in British Columbia, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported. Preovolos, who told the Canadian Press that an appeal was likely, could not be reached for further comment.

The maid, Leticia Sarmiento, 40, moved to Canada with Orr and Huen and their three young children in September, 2008. She said that although she had enjoyed a good working relationship with the couple when she worked for them in Hong Kong, things changed in Vancouver. She said the couple “tricked” her into applying for a Canadian visa, by promising her superior working conditions and that she would eventually be able to apply for Canadian residency.

She testified during the three-week trial that the couple instead confiscated her passport, restricted her movements and kept her locked in the house, where she had to work for 16 hours a day, with barely a day off for 21 months. She was only allowed one phone call a month, she said.

Sarmiento said matters came to a head in June, 2010, when Huen shoved her during an argument over the children’s milk. Sarmiento phoned police and was taken to a shelter.

However, Preovolos said that Sarmiento had begged the couple to bring her with them to Canada when a business failure triggered their decision to leave Hong Kong. He said that when Sarmiento’s six-month tourist visa expired, she refused to leave, despite Orr having bought a ticket for her.

By June 2010, Orr and Huen had run out of patience and again demanded that she leave their home, buying her another ticket to the Philippines, Preovolos said during the trial. It was only then that Sarmiento, desperate to stay in Canada, called police, he said.

Under cross-examination, Sarmiento agreed that she was planning to apply for permanent residency in Canada instead of returning to the Philippines. “Why not, if the government lets me?” she said, according to CBC.

Preovolos called witnesses including a bank employee who testified that Sarmiento had provided her passport when she tried unsuccessfully to open a Canadian account, undermining claims that her employers had confiscated it.

Another witness testified that no keys or combinations were needed to open the front doors of either of the family’s Vancouver homes from the inside. A combination “keypad” which Sarmiento claimed kept her locked in did not exist, Preovolos said.

Sarmiento was initially paid C$500 (HK$3,714) a month, roughly in line with the $3,470 minimum allowable wage for foreign maids in Hong Kong but well below British Columbia’s current general minimum hourly wage, of C$10.25. The couple increased her pay to C$700.

Orr remains free on bail, pending sentencing next month.

In a distraught interview with CTV news last month, Orr described the trafficking charge as “ridiculous”. He said he had lost his job as a security guard in Canada as a result of the case.

“Who is going to pay for my rent? Who is going to pay for my food? My bills?” he said.

It is not uncommon for Hong Kong people who emigrate to Canada to take their maids with them, with one expert describing the normal and legal work visa process as “simple”.

Additional reporting by Phila Siu