Dhalla, nannies contradict each other in testimony

Members of a parliamentary committee in Ottawa heard conflicting and often emotional testimony on Tuesday from Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla and two foreign caregivers who say she hired them to work at her family's house.

Women speak of working long hours, being treated like slaves

Members of a parliamentary committee in Ottawa heard conflicting and often emotional testimony on Tuesday from Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla and two foreign caregivers who say she hired them to work at her family's house.

Magdalene Gordo, 31, and Richelyn Tongson, 37, testified via videoconference from Toronto. The two women of Philippine origin said Dhalla interviewed and hired them to care for her mother in Dhalla's family home in Mississauga, Ont.

They alleged she forced them to work long hours doing household chores (including shovelling snow and cleaning family-owned chiropractic clinics) and held on to their passports — all in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that lasted from February to May 2008.

"I was mentally tortured and physically stressed," Gordo testified, saying she worked from 7:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. each day on "various household chores, not caregiving jobs. … You're being insulted. They show you were a slave. They do not show you love and compassion."

Tongson said she had handed over her birth certificate, marriage certificate and passport to Dhalla.

"I asked [her] for my documents every Thursday night," she told the committee. "I didn't know if she would deport me."

Tongson broke down sobbing, prompting a short recess, as she described that she had four children to support in the Philippines and did not want to be deported.

MP says staff treated with 'love, care and respect'

Immediately following the testimony by the women, Dhalla appeared before the committee with her lawyer at her side, calling their accusations "false and unsubstantiated."

"I, Ruby Dhalla, did not employ Magdalene Gordo or Richelyn Tongson," she said. "I, Ruby Dhalla, did not sponsor Magdalene or Richelyn. I don't know what their motive is, but I do want to tell all of you today that I have nothing to hide, and I have done nothing wrong."

Dhalla said her brother, Neil Dhalla, was responsible for hiring and managing the women — but Gordo refuted this.

Neil Dhalla "was never involved in interviewing me, orienting me in the job responsibilities, nor supervising me," Gordo said. "He never introduced himself as my employer. He did not discuss employment issues with me."

Other than him showing her how he wanted his shoes shined, his suits prepared and his car vacuumed, she had no interaction with him, she said.

Gordo said she was asked to shovel the driveway after a snowstorm because the man who usually did it was away on vacation. She and Tongson also said they were asked to clean family-owned chiropractic clinics as well as Dhalla's cousin's apartment every Wednesday.

"I felt like a vacuum cleaner being on loan to [Dhalla's cousin] Sonia," said Gordo.

In her testimony, Dhalla repeatedly said the women, and indeed anyone who enters their home, is "treated with love, care and respect."

Dhalla hinted that a political conspiracy was behind the nannies' stories. She said she saw Immigration Minister Jason Kenney with her Conservative opponent at a recent Sikh parade in her riding.

Referring to a media report, she suggested that perhaps the nannies were promised permanent residency status in Canada in return for their going public a year after leaving her home.

Dhalla insists she was not the employer

Dhalla also held up documents, including signed receipts, that she said proved the women were paid by her mother and that their passports were returned to them by her brother.

"I was not their employer. I was not their sponsor," Dhalla said on several occasions.

The women were paid cash by her mother at their insistence, she added.

Dhalla denied that the women were asked to vacuum her brother's car, saying the vehicle is taken to a car wash.

She also disputed the women's claim that they were asked to clean the family's chiropractic clinics, saying a cleaning firm had been hired to do so. 

Gordo told the committee Dhalla was typically home from Thursday until Monday each week. But Dhalla appeared at one point to deny that she even lived in the home with her brother and mother and thus was not aware of any perceived impropriety.

"I visit the home," she said, citing a busy work schedule, waving airline boarding passes as evidence of her whereabouts at particular times being discussed.

However, after prodding by parliamentary secretary Rick Dykstra, she conceded it was also her residence.

Dhalla also deflected a question about whether the women were asked to clean her cousin's apartment, saying that she was too busy to even go to her cousin's house for dinner.

Promise not fulfilled, worker says

Dykstra asked why Gordo would leave Dhalla's home after only 11 days of working there if it was the kind of loving environment that Dhalla described — where her mother cooked for Gordo and both of them would relax on couches in the family room watching television together.

Gordo said she quit when the workload became onerous and it became evident Dhalla would not get her a work permit.

"I did not see any proof that she would fulfill her promise of sponsoring me.… She and her mother repeatedly insisted in asking for my passport," said Gordo.

Dhalla once called her from her constituency office and demanded Gordo surrender her passport, she said.

"I told her that I had left it in my apartment," Gordo said, adding that Dhalla then threatened, "'If you don't give your passport, then I will never sponsor you'."

"From this day on, I became concerned and terribly worried about my situation working for Dr. Ruby Dhalla without the proper documentation," Gordo said.

When Gordo asked for her salary on her last day of work, she said Dhalla told her, "'You are stupid. You are nothing here.' She started yelling at me."

After withholding her salary for a month after she left the home, Gordo said Dhalla's mother finally paid her $400 in cash during a meeting at a local McDonald's.

Tongson said she also received cash payments of about $3,000 over three months.