Canada warns Hongkongers about forcing maids to join them on holiday

Visitors from Hong Kong risk arrest if their domestic helper is forced to join them while they are on holiday, regardless of the length of stay

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 4:53am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 8:40am

Hong Kong holidaymakers risk arrest for human trafficking, an offence with a potential life sentence, if they force maids to join them on Canadian vacations - regardless of whether the helper's visa has expired - Canada's federal police have warned.

The caution comes after Hong Kong emigrant Franco Orr Yiu-kwan was jailed last week for 18 months, convicted of human trafficking in a landmark case for bringing his maid with his family when they moved to Vancouver.

Corporal Jassy Bindra, human trafficking co-ordinator for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), said that the length of time that an employer and employee were in Canada was not relevant to whether trafficking charges were filed.

When presented with the scenario of a Hong Kong boss who forced a maid to join a vacation to Canada, under threat of dismissal, Bindra said that all scenarios of potential human trafficking would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

"If someone is forcing a person to travel internationally against their will and under threats of any kind, they will be investigated and potentially prosecuted as this would constitute an offence in Canada," she stressed.

Bindra's warning came after recruitment experts suggested last week that employers would only be at risk if a maid's Canadian visa expired. Bindra said this was not the case.

"Whether an individual is victimised for one day or one year is irrelevant. If Canadian laws are being broken, the RCMP would take action," Bindra said.

Bindra added that "the onus is upon [the employer]" to ensure that the proper visas were secured for maids.

In the Orr case, he was accused of forcing Leticia Sarmiento to work slave-like hours, denying her access to her passport and keeping her locked in the family home, but Judge Richard Goepel said none of these aggravating factors had been proven. He said the jury clearly did not believe all of Sarmiento's testimony about these issues but that these factors did not need to be proven to support the trafficking conviction.

Prominent prosecutor Peter LaPrairie, who undertook the case against Orr and secured the first trafficking conviction under Canadian immigration law, said that once the identity of an accused and the timeframe of the offence had been established, two points needed to be proven in a trafficking case: that the accused organised the victim's coming to Canada and that "abduction, fraud, deception, the threat or use of force or coercion" was used in doing so.

In the example of a maid threatened with dismissal from her Hong Kong job unless she joined a vacationing family, LaPrairie said "what constitutes coercion is a legal argument".

"We would have to look at the facts of the case to determine if it appears a victim came to Canada by means of coercion or fraud or deception," he said.

LaPrairie pointed out that business-class exemptions to visitor visas allow a maid to legally work in Canada for a visiting Hong Kong family for up to six months.

Sarmiento had claimed she was tricked into coming to Canada on a tourist visa in 2008 with the promise of higher wages, better conditions and the prospect of permanent residency. Orr claimed that Sarmiento, who was paid C$500 (HK$3,800) a month in line with her Hong Kong contract before getting a 40 per cent pay rise to C$700, knew all along that she would be working illegally and was well aware of what her work entailed. He claimed Sarmiento begged him to bring her to Canada because she feared she would not be able to find another job in Hong Kong.

Orr's wife, Nicole Huen Oi-ling, 36, was also accused in the case but was acquitted of all charges.

Orr and Huen claimed that they tried repeatedly to get Sarmiento to leave Canada after her six-month tourist visa expired and booked her flights out of the country, but she refused to go.