After one year, Sentosa 27 fight on

ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 12 2008 11:33 PM | Updated as of May 13 2008 07:33 AM

Important strides have been made in the one year old fight of the 27 Filipino nurses who were illegally deployed to New York by the Sentosa Recruitment Agency, the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns said.

In that one year, their illegal recruitment case against Sentosa was dismissed and the agency also filed against the nurses criminal cases of reckless endangerment. These have since been downgraded from criminal cases to a mere labor issue since they were made to work at jobs in retirement homes but were recruited as nurses.

The group had actually been downgraded to 11 and they include Elmer Jacinto, Juliet Anilao, Harriet Avila, Mark dela Cruz, Claudine Gamiao, Jennifer Lampa, Rizza Maulion, James Millena, Ma. Theresa Ramos, Ranier Sichon and their lawyer, Felix Vinluan.

The complainants said that instead of working as nurses, Sentosa employed them as clerks and nursing aides in a retirement home.

Vinluan is the group's US-based lawyer.

In an e-mail sent from New Jersey by Filipino community leader Robert Ceralvo last March, the group’s lawyer Salvador Tuy, he said "there are only a handful of Filipino-American lawyers willing and able to represent the eleven nurses. This is the primary problem of the nurses right now. We don't know if activist groups or non-governmental organizations would be willing to help. "

Reduced work hours

Ellene Sana, executive director of the non-government organization Center for Migrant Advocacy, said their New York partners have been informed with the hope of gathering support for the nurses.

She identified Jacinto, one of the defendants, as a medical board topnotcher from Basilan province in Mindanao.

The ordeal of Jacinto, the other 25 nurses and a physical therapist began in 2004 when they arrived in New York as immigrant workers through the Sentosa.

Five of the nurses finished medicine but took up nursing after becoming doctors. Ten of the nurses came from Metro Manila, eight from Luzon, four are from Mindanao and six come from the Visayas.

They were turned over to Sentosa's US counterpart, Sentosa Care, LLC, a healthcare management company owned by Bent Philipson, a Danish citizen and a permanent US resident.

In court papers, the nurses said they were made to work in the nursing homes, which belonged to Sentosa at rates lower than what they were originally promised.

They said they were also promised they could start working as registered nurses right away. To their surprise, their limited permits to practice nursing were not processed and this resulted to their failure to work as registered nurses.

Some of them were made to work initially as clerks. They were paid $12-$14 per hour. The prevailing wage rate for a nurse was around $24 per hour.

The complainants said that some of them were not reimbursed for their licensure and certification expenses. A couple of the nurses complained that they were not even reimbursed their plane fare from Manila to New York.

The nurses said that their working hours were reduced from 37.5 hours to 35 hours per week, which meant a cut in income. Other complaints included non-payment of night shift differentials and holiday pay, as well as underpayment of hourly rates.

On April 6, 2006, Vinluan filed charges of discrimination against Philipson, Sentosa and Prompt Nursing Employment Agency before the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices before the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

In response, Philipson’s lawyers countersued the nurses and Vinluan for breach of contract and abandonment of their respective patients.

A Goliath in New York

Before the end of April 2006, the nurses filed administrative cases against the Philippine-based Sentosa for violations in recruitment. The case was filed before the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA).

The group also filed criminal cases against Sentosa and its owner Francis Luyun for illegal recruitment before the Department of Justice.

Acting on the nurses’ complaints, POEA Administrator Rosalinda Baldoz signed a preventive suspension order against Sentosa on May 24, 2006, effectively putting their business operation in Manila on hold.

The nurses and Vinluan were surprised to learn the preventive suspension had been lifted on June 6, days after Schumer’s letter was received by the Philippine government.

"We are fighting a Goliath here in New York," said the nurses in a statement. "We understand that our government does not wish to lose the business it can generate from Sentosa’s operations in bringing Filipino nurses to the United States."

"It does not have to close its eyes when its own people are being exploited by these very same dollar-generating enterprises. There are other recruitment agencies out there."