May 06, 2009 04:30 AM
The federal government is facing pressure to launch a legal probe of Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla in the wake of charges that she and her family illegally hired two nannies and subsequently mistreated them.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said yesterday there are several legal penalties for the type of allegations the nannies have made against Dhalla, 35, MP for Brampton-Springdale since 2004 and the Liberals' critic for youth and multiculturalism. He did not specifically mention Dhalla or the specific allegations published in the Star and he said he could not launch his own probe for fear of politicizing the process.
"We're aware of stories of abuse of the rights of live-in caregivers that are very disturbing. These are typically vulnerable workers," Kenney told the Commons.
Dhalla did not make herself available to reporters yesterday, and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff would only say he was still "collecting facts" on the case. NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow said that if the nannies' reports are true, "then there are three or four laws at least that have been broken, whether it's labour laws or immigration regulations."
The Star reported yesterday that two nannies, Magdalene Gordo, 31, and Richelyn Tongson, 37, have publicly complained they were abused while working as live-in caregivers for Dhalla and her family. They alleged, during a public forum two weeks ago with two Ontario cabinet ministers, that their passports were seized, they worked unpaid overtime and were forced to do non-nanny jobs such as washing cars, shining shoes and cleaning family-owned chiropractic clinics.
"One question I have is if this information came to light in a public forum, I would hope that any responsible authorities would have notified the appropriate officials," Kenney said. "I think these allegations may have been provided two weeks ago to a minister of labour in Ontario and I presume that the appropriate authorities were informed."
Jill Fairbrother, Ignatieff's spokesperson, would not say what facts he was collecting nor how long it would take him to make a decision, if any, on Dhalla's fate. Dhalla couldn't be reached for comment, but her office released a statement late yesterday saying she took the assertions in the Star story seriously. "I have hired a lawyer to vigorously defend my reputation and ensure the facts of this matter are fully explored and corrected."
Dhalla told the Star on the weekend she was "shocked and appalled" by the allegations and said "anyone who has ever worked in our home has been treated with a lot of love."
Dhalla's name is becoming synonymous with controversy, and her troubles present Ignatieff with tough questions about how to handle someone who has been a loyal supporter of his since the 2006 leadership race.
Generally seen as a probable cabinet pick should Ignatieff ever assume power, Dhalla may be coming to be seen as too controversial, despite her photogenic and multicultural appeal. She's the first Sikh woman ever to be elected as an MP. Only a little more than a month ago, Dhalla was embroiled in a dispute over release of a Bollywood DVD in which she appeared, before she got into politics.
And just over a year ago, while on a trip to India, Dhalla was portrayed as cavalier and insensitive when police administered beatings to two children who stole the purse of an aide to the Liberal MP. Dhalla later said she condemned violence of any kind.
Yesterday, the head of a non-profit group that advocates for caregivers said she gave Dhalla 24 hours to turn over the passport and other documents seized from Tongson. Agatha Mason, executive director of Intercede, said she warned Dhalla that if she did not hand over the documents immediately she would call in the RCMP to retrieve them.
Mason said she called Dhalla in Ottawa last May after nanny Tongson, who was working "illegally" as a caregiver in the Dhalla home, was having trouble getting her documents back from her employers. "I said to her, in 24 hours if you don't give her the documents I will call the RCMP – I have your address – and have them go there to get the documents," Mason told the Star.
Mason said she told Dhalla Tongson shouldn't be working at the Dhalla home because the family did not have federal approval under the Live-In Caregiver Program.
"I remember telling her that, until you have and LMO (government approval documents) the person is working illegally, so you're breaking the law," said Mason, adding she has notes and telephone records to prove she contacted Dhalla.
In a telephone interview with the Star last week, Dhalla denied she had spoken to anyone from the Toronto-based agency. "I have never spoken to anyone there," Dhalla said. "What is Intercede?"
The Independent Workers Association called on Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley to investigate Dhalla's employment of nannies, and for Dhalla to be relieved of critic's responsibilities until the inquiry is completed. "These accusations should be investigated promptly and thoroughly. And while the investigation is ongoing, Ms. Dhalla should step down," Peter Leibovitch of the association said in a news release.
Coincidentally, the Commons immigration committee – on which Dhalla once served as a member several years ago – is due to deliver a report today on undocumented and temporary foreign workers. In the House of Commons yesterday, Conservative MP Paul Calandra (Oak Ridges-Markham) said the nannies' complaints painted a picture of "involuntary servitude" in their employment with Dhalla.
Kenney responded by listing potential offences Dhalla could be facing.
"If someone was working in a home who was here without a work permit appropriate for that job, that would be my ministry and so that should be reported to the officials at Immigration Canada. If someone was paid under the table without taxes paid, that should be reported to Revenue Canada. And if workers did not have their basic labour code rights respected, if they were forced to work 12 hours a day or something then that should be reported to the provincial ministry of labour," Kenney said.
"As it relates to passports, you know, I think that would probably fall within my ministry. Passports are the property of the government, are administered by the department of foreign affairs."
At Queen's Park, an aide to Labour Minister Peter Fonseca said the minister last spoke with Kenney about three weeks ago, before the public meeting where the allegations about Dhalla were raised.
With files from Robert Benzie and Bruce Campion-Smith