AKBAYAN Rep. Mayong Aguja

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Nursing our Nurses: Protecting our exploited nurses in New York

Posted by tin on September 4, 2006


Protecting our exploited nurses in New York

Privilege Speech of Akbayan Rep. Mayong Aguja on the Sentosa Victims delivered at the House of Representatives on September 4, 2005

Mr. Speaker, esteemed colleagues, I rise today to bring to you the issue of our nurses who after years of nursing education in the country, and after a grueling endeavor to find employment abroad find themselves still unjustly treated. With the growing demand for nurses worldwide, nurse staffing and recruitment agencies have proliferated both here and abroad. Nurse recruiters have been aggressively inviting nurses to work overseas, especially in the United States, with promises of free housing, insurance, medical and dental benefits, immigration assistance, free review and application for exams, and other bonuses. Such attractive offers prove irresistible for Filipino nurses. However, complaints have been piling up about nurse staffing and recruitment agencies not living up to their promises or are misrepresenting information.

Let me tell this body of the case of 26 nurses and a physical therapist—all our kakababayans who went to New York in search of greener pastures but all found themselves unjustly treated. All of them were recruited by Sentosa Recruitment Agency. Sentosa is a Manila-based agency recruiting Filipino Nurses for SENTOSA CARE GROUP – the biggest privately-owned healthcare group in downstate New York. It claims to recruit nurses for direct placement in healthcare facilities in the said area in the US.

From their website, the said recruitment agency promises the following benefits, all are but too enticing for any Filipino nurse:

· Direct-hiring

· Competitive salary ranging from $21 to $35 per hour

· Medical coverage

· Dental coverage

· Relocation and Housing allowances

· Free Malpractice Insurance

· Paid Vacation days

· Paid Sick days

· Paid Birthday

· Paid Holiday

· Free Airfare from Manila to New York

· Reimbursement of fees for processing certification and licensures

· Generous Shift Differentials, Flexible 8 and 12 hours Schedules

· Paid Study Leave

· Free housing to all new Immigrant Nurses.

The 26 nurses were sponsored to work as immigrant workers. They arrived in the United States as immigrants, some as early as 2004, and some others, as recent as last quarter of 2005. The lone physical therapist was sponsored as a nonimmigrant worker.

When these healthcare professionals arrived in the United States, they were all surprised to find out that most of them were made to work for a nursing home facility different from the nursing home facility that sponsored them, meaning a different facility from what was submitted to the POEA.

Interestingly, Sentosa Recruitment Agency is a single proprietorship under the name of Francis Luyun, who presently works for one of the NY nursing homes owned and/or managed by Bent Philipson, a Danish citizen and a permanent resident of the United States. The petitioning employers of the nurses and the physical therapist are various nursing home facilities owned and/or managed by Bent Philipson. Mr. Philipson owns and/or manages many nursing home facilities in the New York area, probably more than twenty all in all. In addition to the nursing home facilities, Philipson likewise owns and/or manages Sentosa Care, LLC, a healthcare management company based in Woodmere, NY. One of the nursing home facilities (Woodmere Rehab) that sponsored most of the nurses is likewise located in Woodmere, NY.

All of them (without exception) were not compensated by any of the nursing homes that supposedly sponsored them, whether their worksite assignment was their petitioning employer or not. All of them were paid by Sentosa Services or Prompt Nursing Employment Agency. In effect, they were all made agency nurses or agency physical therapist of Sentosa Services/Prompt Nursing Employment Agency, which they were told was also owned and controlled by Bent Philipson.

Those nurses who received health insurance coverage got the same, not from their petitioning employers, but from Prompt Nursing Employment Agency. The nurses complained that some of them were not reimbursed their licensure and certification expenses. A couple of the nurses complained that they were not reimbursed their plane fare from Manila to New York.

All of the nurses complained that they were told, even while they were still in the Philippines, that upon their arrival in the United States, they could start working immediately as registered nurses as their limited permits to practice nursing had already been processed. To their surprise, their limited permits had not been processed yet at the time of their arrivals. A few got their limited permits about three weeks after their arrival. Most of them got their limited permits or licenses a couple of months later.

Some of the nurses were made to work initially as “clerks” and were paid $12 to $14 per hour. The prevailing wage rate for a nurse is around $24 per hour. The nursing home facilities where the nurses worked were paying much more than that ($35 to $45 per hour) to their staff nurses.

The nurses all complained that their working hours were reduced from 37.5 hours to 35 hours per week. Some of them were not paid for actual hours worked; some of them were underpaid their hourly rates; some of them were not paid night shift differentials; some of them were not paid holiday pay. These nurses all complained to their supervisors and employers, either verbally by phone or formally, by letters or e-mail messages, about the underpayment or non-payment of their wages and other employment benefits. They also complained about patient healthcare issues, such as understaffing and the lack of proper and complete orientation or training. But all of their concerns and issues were ignored and not satisfactorily addressed by their employers / worksite assignments / supervisors.

The nurses’ complaint were referred by the NY Consulate General, to a pro bono counsel. On April 6, 2006, thru their counsel, the nurses filed charges for discrimination against their respective petitioning employers, Philipson, Sentosa Care, LLC, and Prompt Nursing Employment Agency, before the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices of the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

The nurses and the physical therapist likewise submitted their resignation letters sometime thereafter, to be effective immediately. Their resignations were premised on the substantial breach by their employers of their employment agreements.

On April 11, 2006, Philipson and his group of companies filed a complaint against the nurses/physical therapist for breach of contract, and against the counsel and one of Sentosa’s competitors (Juno Healthcare Staffing Services, Inc.) for tortious interference of contracts. A TRO was issued by the Judge but only to enjoin the nurses, Juno and their counsel from “soliciting” other employees of the Sentosa group of companies to resign from their employments.

Other Sentosa employees, who were also victims of the same discrimination and exploitation suffered by the 26 nurses and the physical therapist, told the group that they would also be willing to file charges against Philipson and his group of companies. The new complainants executed their Affidavits. On the day the counsel was supposed to file the charges before the US Office of Special Counsel, he received a faxed letter from them informing us not to file the charges as they “fear for their lives”.

Sometime before the end of April 2006, the nurses filed administrative cases against the Philippine-based Sentosa Recruitment Agency for violations of recruitment rules and regulations before the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). The group also filed labor claims against the petitioning employers before the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC). They also filed criminal cases against Sentosa Recruitment Agency and Luyun for illegal recruitment before the Department of Justice.

POEA Administrator Rosalinda Baldoz signed the preventive suspension order of Sentosa Recruitment Agency on May 24, 2006 based on the complaints filed by the nurses. On June 2, 2006, New York Sen. Charles Schumer wrote POEA Administrator Baldoz and then DOLE Secretary Patricia Sto.Tomas, to look into the case. Philipson is known to be a big political contributor of Sen. Schumer.It seems, the “padrino” system is not unique to the US Senator and Bent Philipson. Unlike Sen. Schumer however who simply asked “to take any actions ..considered appropriate”, the agency’s local “padrino” called up to directly intervene with the case. The nurses and their legal counsel Atty. Felix Vinluan were informed that Secretary Michael Defensor, Presidential Chief of Staff called up the POEA on June 6, 2006 to lift the order of preventive suspension. The nurses were also informed that Sec. Defensor and Con-Gen Cecilia Rebong had a long talk about the Sentosa case on June 7, 2006. Apparently, after the talk the Con-Gen seemed to have washed her hands off the Sentosa case. Similarly, the Labor Attache has not responded to persistent communications of our concerned healthcare professionals regarding their case.

On June 08, 2006, POEA Administrator Baldoz lifted the order of preventive suspension on the basis that there are more than two thousand job orders pending with the Sentosa Recruitment orders with “two thousand Filipino medical workers whose chance to be issued US immigrant visas may be jeopardized”.

To my mind, it seems that we are too busy sending out our workers abroad but fall short of responding to their grievances. The government sends its workers overseas for failing to produce local employment but does not immediately take action to protect them. It seems that the government has turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the injustices against our fellow Filipinos abroad but can easily be influenced by a US Senator.

What is clear in this case is that Sentosa Recruitment Agency violated recruitment rules and regulations of the POEA by engaging in acts of misrepresentation in publishing false information thru their website and flyers and by altering employment contracts approved and verified by the POEA. Even with glaring evidence to prove the allegations, it is clear with the lifting of the suspension order against Sentosa that the POEA does not have the resolve to protect our workers.

It is very sad to note that it appears that the government does not have a clear plan of action for our workers – nurses or not, once they are outside our country. In 2005, OFW Remittances was a whopping USD 10,689,000.0 or 10% of our GNP. Despite this, our OFWs do not receive the protection they deserve. Once abroad, they are left on their own. We in Akbayan, have filed House Bill 2367, An Act strengthening the regulatory functions of the POEA. We all call on our fellow lawmakers in this House for the immediate passage of this bill for the protection of our workers. The same bill manifests the need to monitor overseas employment, apart from the licensing and registration system.

Mr. Speaker, esteemed colleagues, what is bothersome with this case is that these workers are already professionals, registered medical health practitioners here in the country. They sought employment abroad because of poor working conditions for health care professionals here in the country only to find out that their situation abroad could be much worse. It is sad to note that one of the petitioners in this case is 2004 Medical Board topnotcher tuned-nurse who has purposedly left the country to grab the opportunity for a better life. These healthcare workers sought the aid of our government not only for themselves but also for the numerous overseas workers who may be experiencing the same injustices.

Allow me to quote a few statements from the open letter of our nurses released on July 6, 2006:

“Though we are far from home, we are still Filipino citizens and thus we sought protection and assistance from your respective offices. We are not financially affluent or politically well-connected to influence the decisions of those in power, but what we have is the wellness of truth behind our claims. If you cannot give us assistance then to whom to we go to? Are you just going to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the exploitations and discrimination against you fellowmen? Is the Philippine government willing to settle for mediocrity when something can be done? Or shall we let the media assist us in bringing these issues to the fore?”

All these in consideration, Mr. Speaker, fellow legislators, I call upon this house to investigate this case particularly the action (or lack of it) of the POEA, and the Labor Attache of our Consulate Offices, not only in the United States but in countries where our workers, whether healthcare professionals or not are experiencing similar cases of unjust practices. Similarly, we would also like to investigate the reported influence of politicians on the decisions of the POEA to lift the suspension order against Sentosa Recruitment Agency particularly of US Senator Schumer and Secretary Mike Defensor.

The nursing profession is under fire nowadays with the reported leakage of the recent licensure exam. While we should continue to investigate this case, let us also not forget our nurses and health care professionals we have already sent outside the country. They seek our attention not only for their personal interest but also for the welfare of their fellow Filipino professionals. Let us be reminded that our overseas workers, in whatever country or profession, are still our constituents who deserve our attention and protection. While we in Akbayan, denounce the government policy to actively send out our workers abroad for failing to provide quality local employment, the increasing number of overseas workers deserve our earnest attention.


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Akbayan Rep slams government’s slow response to evacuate Filipinos in Lebanon

Posted by tin on July 21, 2006

“This is not the kind of treatment our OFWs deserve!”, said Akbayan Rep. Mayong Aguja on the slow response of the Philippine government to offer direct assistance to Filipinos in Lebanon.

 “While GMA has been actively peddling Filipino workers abroad, it took her this long to release funds for the protection and evacuation of at least 30,000 Filipinos in Lebanon”, added Aguja.

 “In the past nine days since the military offensives in Lebanon, the Philippine government could not even guarantee protection for the Filipinos, resorting only to pleas for foreign assistance to allow Filipinos to board their evacuation vessels out of Lebanon”, said Aguja. “While foreign aid would be very much welcome, these countries have their own citizens to evacuate”, the legislator added.

 “The lack of a clear evacuation plan agonizes our overseas workers and their families here in the Philippines”, said Aguja. “I have met distressed families in General Santos City who have not yet been able to contact their loved-ones in Lebanon”, said the Mindanaoan legislator. Without certainty of protection from the Philippine government, reports say that some workers have chosen to stay with their employers as they flee for safety.

 “We hail our overseas workers for saving our economy and sending remittances which last year soared to 10.3 billion dollars. But we cannot assure them protection when they are in danger. Is this how we should be treating our Filipinos abroad?”, said Aguja. 

 “This manifests the Philippine government’s lack of sincerity to protect the growing number of citizens working abroad.” said Aguja. “The government sends its workers overseas for failing to produce local employment but does not immediately respond to  protect the workers it sends away.” added Aguja.

 “The government should take a more pro-active stance and provide a clear evacuation plan for our workers in Lebanon.”, challenged Aguja.  “We cannot afford to just wait for foreign aid”, he added.

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