Toots Ople

Migrant Workers Secretary Susan Ople dies

Michelle Abad

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Migrant Workers Secretary Susan Ople dies

MIGRANT WORKERS SECRETARY. Susan Ople is confirmed as Secretary of the Department of Migrant Workers by the Commission on Appointments on November 29, 2022.

Angie de Silva/Rappler

(1st UPDATE) The longtime OFW advocate dies at 61

MANILA, Philippines – Migrant Workers Secretary Susan “Toots” Ople, a long-time advocate for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), has died, the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) confirmed on Tuesday, August 22.

“It is with great sadness that the Department of Migrant Workers announces the passing of our dearest Secretary Susan ‘Toots’ Ople,” the DMW said.

The department said that Ople died peacefully around 1 pm on Tuesday, surrounded by her family and loved ones. She was 61.

The DMW said it will release more details soon, and asked for prayers for Ople and her family.

While Ople is the second secretary of the DMW, the Philippine government’s newest department, she was the first DMW chief of the department in its fully constituted form in 2023.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said in a chance interview with reporters that he and the Philippines have “lost a friend.”

“Secretary Toots is a special person and with a deep compassion, really, for the people that she had to care for, namely, the migrant workers…. It’s a big loss. Ang galing-galing ni Secretary Toots (Secretary Toots was so good at her work),” said Marcos.

Ople experienced helping OFWs both in and out of government. She served as labor undersecretary during the Gloria Arroyo administration and also founded and led the Blas F. Ople Policy Policy and Training Center, a nongovernmental organization assisting OFWs.

She is the daughter of Blas Ople, labor secretary of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos who also served as foreign affairs secretary of the Arroyo administration. Blas Ople was also Senate president from 1999 to 2000.

“She very much followed in the tradition of Ka Blas Ople, of excellence, of compassion…. It is a great loss for all of us. I called her my friend, it is a great loss to the Philippines, the service that we know she could still have rendered if she had lived,” said Marcos.

Ople’s death comes after the recent deaths of two of her brothers, journalist Blas Ople Jr. and former Hagonoy mayor Felix “Toti” Ople, due to lung cancer. Susan Ople, meanwhile, was a breast cancer survivor.

On July 25, the DMW announced that Ople would be taking a wellness break to grieve and be with her family.

“Our family lost two good men within a span of five days. They are now in a much better place, free from pain and reunited with our beloved parents and brother, Raul,” Ople had said in the DMW’s announcement as she went on leave.

Career dedicated to OFWs

Ople started to become deeply embedded in OFW issues when she served as chief of staff of her father during his stint as foreign secretary. 

In December 2003, the elder Ople was en route to Bahrain for Arroyo’s state visit when he died of a heart attack. Susan was waiting for him in Bahrain.

Arroyo designated Susan Ople as labor undersecretary in 2004, where she led numerous projects for OFWs such as on computer literacy. She helped digitally connect OFWs and their families in an age where social media was far from commonplace.

Ople was a writer, and served some time leading the presidential speechwriting group. She also worked as a consultant to the International Labor Organization on women workers’ training on gender issues and labor rights.

When Ople stepped down from government, she decided to focus on the Ople Center, which she founded in 2004.

Through the Ople Center, Ople helped facilitate the rescue of OFWs trafficked to and exploited in countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The Ople Center campaigned against the use of Filipino migrant workers as drug mules in international drug rings. 

Ople also tried her hand at a Senate seat in 2010 and 2016. She was all too familiar with the Senate, serving as chief of staff of her father as senator, as well as two other senators: Manuel “Mar” Roxas II and Ernesto Herrera.

She pushed for more programs to assist human trafficking survivors, nondiscrimination of workers based on age, and the end to contractualization, among others. 

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Up until her appointment as migrant workers secretary in 2022, she constantly and actively represented the Ople Center in coordinating OFW distress cases with the government, and served as a resource person in congressional migrant workers committee hearings.

In Ople’s DMW, she created the One Repatriation Command Center, a one-stop center for keeping track of the repatriation of distressed OFWs. She also takes credit for instituting the OFW Pass, the free, digital alternative to the overseas employment certificate. 

Open communication until the end

In a statement on Tuesday, OFW rights organization Migrante International expressed deep condolences over Ople’s death, and highlighted her “long and respectable” advocacy work for migrant Filipino workers.

The progressive group said that, while they had some criticisms of her stint as DMW secretary, Ople never closed lines of communication with them.

“Recognizing that it is productive for the government to listen to grassroots organizations, families, and advocates of migrants, she engaged in dialogue on concrete measures to alleviate the plight of OFWs and migrant Filipinos. She would sometimes address our criticisms but without naming us and without the hostility shown by many government officials,” Migrante said.

“Her replacement, whoever s/he is, will surely have big shoes to fill,” they added. –

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a multimedia reporter at Rappler. She covers the rights of women and children, migrant Filipinos, and labor.