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Couple faces human-trafficking charges over Filipino nanny’s ordeal

On Wednesday the B.C. Supreme Court heard evidence that an altercation between Nicole Huen and Leticia Sarmiento prompted the nanny, Ms Sarmiento, to call the police.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

A Filipino nanny who claims she was kept in domestic servitude in Vancouver for almost two years says the ordeal ended with a blow-up over her serving the wrong kind of milk and an altercation that involved police.

The testimony was heard Wednesday at a rare human-trafficking trial in B.C. Supreme Court. Franco Orr and Nicole Huen are accused of bringing their nanny, Leticia Sarmiento, to British Columbia from Hong Kong in September, 2008, and forcing her to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, taking care of three young children and doing all the housework. For her work, Ms. Sarmiento was initially paid $500 a month and later $700 a month.

If convicted, Mr. Orr and Ms. Huen face a maximum fine of $1-million, life in prison or both. They have pleaded not guilty.

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On Wednesday, Ms. Sarmiento testified that her last day of work for the couple began with her waking up at 7 a.m. on June 13, 2010, to clean the floors and wash the children's toys. Ms. Huen then entered the kitchen with one of the children and asked Ms. Sarmiento to pour the child a glass of milk, Ms. Sarmiento recounted. She poured the child a glass of soy milk, which the child did not drink.

When Ms. Huen learned Ms. Sarmiento had poured soy milk, rather than homogenized milk, she "threw the soya milk in front of me at the sink," the nanny testified.

She alleges Ms. Huen then yelled at her and pushed her and pulled her, prompting her to call police.

Through sobs, she told police, "Please help me," a tearful Mr. Sarmiento testified through a translator. The dispatcher, struggling to understand her, told her to have a glass of water and calm down.

"When I went in front of the cabinet to get a glass to drink water, Ms. Huen yelled, 'Don't drink water in my house,'" she said.

"When Ms. Huen stopped me from drinking the water, I told [the police dispatcher] that she didn't want me to drink the water. Again, she yelled. I heard, 'Do you like water?' I just felt that my back was already wet. She had threw water on me. I just sat down [in] the corner of the kitchen, crying. Somebody approached me – I don't know who it was – and took the telephone from me.' "

Three police officers attended the residence and one spoke with her in private, Ms. Sarmiento said. Deciding to leave with police, she began gathering her belongings in a garbage bag. At that point, she said, Ms. Huen demanded her wallet and "removed everything that was in there."

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"She wanted to make sure that I would not steal a picture of the family," Ms. Sarmiento said.

When Crown counsel Charles Hough asked whether she did, in fact, have a photo of the children in her wallet, Ms. Sarmiento said yes.

"Was that photograph important to you?" Mr. Hough asked.

"Yes," Ms. Sarmiento replied, sobbing as she said she loved the children. "That is why I'm keeping it: as a remembrance of them."

Ms. Sarmiento was taken to the airport, where an official told her Mr. Orr had gotten her a six-months visitor's visa, which had long expired. She was then taken to a women's shelter, as she had nowhere else to stay.

Earlier in the trial, the court heard that, prior to the move, Ms. Sarmiento had worked as a nanny for the couple in Hong Kong for about one year. She worked five days a week then and had statutory holidays off, along with the freedom to see friends.

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The couple had told Ms. Sarmiento she would become a permanent resident after two years working for them in Canada and that they would help her bring her family, including her three children, from the Philippines, Mr. Hough said.

The trial resumes on Thursday.

In May, 2011, a West Vancouver woman was charged with human trafficking after a 21-year-old African woman said she was forced to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, without pay.

Police said Mumtaz Ladha had promised the young woman a work visa and a job at a Vancouver-area hair salon but instead forced her into domestic servitude in her $3-million home, hand-washing underwear, hand-washing cars and sometimes eating only table scraps. That file will go to trial this fall.

There have been only four human-trafficking files in B.C., with no successful convictions.

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