MANILA, Philippines — Susan “Toots” Ople, an advocate for the rights of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and the pioneer secretary of the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), died on Tuesday afternoon surrounded by her family and loved ones. She was 61.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. described Ople’s passing as “a great loss” to the country.
“[It’s a] very, very sad news. I have lost a friend. The Philippines has lost a friend,” the president said. “Secretary [Ople] is a special person with a deep compassion really, really for the people that she had cared for, mainly the migrant workers.”
Ople had followed the tradition of excellence and compassion of her late father, former Sen. Blas Ople, who served for 19 years as labor minister of Marcos’ father, Ferdinand Sr.
Beacon of hope
Vice President Sara Duterte said she mourned the loss of a real patriot.
“She was a beacon of hope and a source of strength for migrant workers caught in distressing situations while working abroad,” she said.
Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri called Ople “a dedicated public servant with a huge heart for our people” while Speaker Martin Romualdez hailed her as “a great and tireless champion of laborers and OFWs.”
OFW party-list Rep. Marissa Magsino remembered Ople as a “steady pillar” of those fighting to protect the rights, welfare, and safety of Filipino workers abroad.
Rep. Michael Romero, House poverty alleviation panel chair and one of the proponents of the DMW in Congress, said Ople gave valuable inputs when the House was deliberating on the DMW bill.
“She was as much an author of the DMW charter as my colleagues and I were because of her valuable insights,” Romero said.
House Deputy Minority Leader Bernadette Herrera said Ople’s time as DMW secretary “was brief but it capped a lifetime of devoted service.”
She recalled Ople was initially hesitant in accepting her appointment as DMW secretary because of her battle with cancer, but she eventually took on the challenge.
Ople will be remembered as the first secretary of the DMW, which was created through Republic Act No. 11641 in 2021.
By the time she was appointed by Marcos as DMW secretary in June 2022, Ople had already been in remission from breast cancer for more than two years. Her appointment was confirmed by the Commission on Appointments in November 2022.
Ople was known for negotiating safer labor agreements with Middle Eastern countries, shutting down scams and human-trafficking schemes, and repatriating distressed workers, many of whom she personally assisted when she went to troubled states, like Sudan.
At the Department of Foreign Affairs, Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs Eduardo de Vega said Ople’s biggest achievements were lifting the employment ban in Saudi Arabia last year, suspending the deployment of new household OFWs to Kuwait this year, and forming a competent team that will carry on the legacy of the DMW.
The Canadian Embassy in Manila credited Ople for helping advance labor relations between Canada and the Philippines.
Ople received her communication arts degree from the University of Santo Tomas and finished her master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University where she received the Josephine Vernon Award for Excellence in Communications.
Ople was a columnist, writer, and former presidential speechwriter. Her first job was as a researcher at the office of former Sen. Ernesto Herrera. She also worked as her father’s chief of staff and public information officer when he was a senator.
She served as labor undersecretary from 2004 to 2009 and also founded the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that extends assistance to victims of human trafficking and illegal recruitment.
She was the national coordinator on women workers’ education for the International Labor Organization and was also a member of the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking, the first Filipino to hold the post.