Toots Ople

‘Walang pinipili’: Labor groups remember Toots Ople always being there

Michelle Abad

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‘Walang pinipili’: Labor groups remember Toots Ople always being there

RIGHTS GROUPS. From left to right: migrants with the Quezon City Public Employment Service Office, Federation of Free Workers national president Sonny Matula, and Pin@y Careworkers Transnational president Shiella Estrada attend the wake of the late Migrant Workers Secretary Susan Ople on August 25, 2023.

Michelle Abad/Rappler

'Nakakalungkot, pero kailangan pa rin naming ipagpatuloy kung ano man 'yung ginagawa niya at dapat niyang gawin para sa mga protection at rights ng mga OFW,' says OFW leader Shiella Estrada over DMW Secretary Toots Ople's passing

MANILA, Philippines – Labor groups and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) remember the late Migrant Workers Secretary Susan “Toots” Ople as always being present for them, ready to listen to their concerns, at any time of the day.

Wala siyang pinipili na tao, ke mahirap, ke mayaman – nandoon po siya sa pagtulong talaga, lalo na sa mga [kailangan] ng mga OFW,” said Marilyn Petalsana, president of the Overseas Family Circle’s Batasan Chapter in Quezon City.

(She was not choosy [on whom she helped], whether they were poor or rich. She was always there to help, especially for the needs of OFWs.)

Petalsana, who worked as a caregiver in Taiwan from 1997 to 2003, met Ople for the first time in December 2014, when the Blas F. Ople Center invited OFWs to a Family Day celebration. She fondly remembers sharing stories and sitting next to each other.

The former OFW said that Ople helped her siblings’ children, who also worked abroad. One was a distressed worker who needed to come home, and another was a seafarer who had an amputated hand. Petalsana said that because of Ople’s help, they were able to get assistance from the government.

Noong nabalitaan ko, sobra talaga akong nanghihinayang kasi isa po siya sa mga napakagandang… tumutulong sa OFW. Malaki po ang naitutulong niya,” she said. (When I heard the news [of her death], I was so devastated, because she was such a great help to OFWs. She helped us so much.)

Crowd, Person, Adult
VISITING. Former OFW Marilyn Petalsana talks to reporters as she and other migrants with the Public Employment Service Office of Quezon City visit the wake of the late Migrant Workers Secretary Susan ‘Toots’ Ople on August 25, 2023.

Petalsana was part of one of the numerous labor groups that steadily gathered at the wake of Ople on Friday, August 25, at the Heritage Memorial Park in Taguig. Ople died on Tuesday, August 22, due to a cardiac arrest.

Tributes poured in for the late migrant workers secretary. She transcended politics, and gained the respect of many Filipinos for her relentless advocacy for OFWs’ rights.

Always made time

Ople was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, and underwent surgery in 2020. In July 2022, she said that she was still undergoing treatment despite being cancer-free.

During her time as the first full-fledged secretary of the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), Ople was always present in events, meetings, press briefings, and in most if not all international trips of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

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This tirelessness was seen even when no one was looking, another OFW leader said.

Kung makikita natin lalo na ‘yung mga namatay na OFW, talagang siya yung personal na nag-aasikaso, kahit sumasalubong pag dumarating yung remains. Ginagawa niya ‘yan na hindi ginawa ng marami, ‘di ba?” Shiella Estrada, president of Pin@y Careworkers Transnational, told Rappler in an interview outside the wake chapel.

(When we look especially at the OFWs who have died, she really, personally gets involved, even in meeting them when the remains arrive back in the country. She does that when many have not, right?)

Estrada recalled how easy to approach and accessible Ople was.

Kasi matagal na rin kaming nasa unyon, sa mga organisasyon ng mga OFWs, pero first time kami nakakita ng ganitong klase ng dedikasyon, pagdating sa kung paano alagaan ang mga OFWs,” she said. (We have been in unions and OFW organizations for so long, but this is the first time for us to see this kind of dedication when it comes to taking care of OFWs.)

Even when Ople became DMW secretary, Estrada said that the former committed to still being there for them. She quoted Ople telling her, “Nandito lang ang DMW, anytime, pumunta kayo. Kung wala man ako, kahit nasaan ako, makikipag-usap ako sa inyo kahit online pa ‘yan.”

(The DMW is here, anytime, you can come and visit. If I’m not around, wherever I am, I will talk to you even if it has to be online.)

Estrada said Ople went through with that promise, and that every time they wanted to report on abuses and exploitations of the care workers in their organization, Ople would speak to them online even late in the evening, when they were done with their work. She would adjust to them.

“‘Nakakalungkot, pero kailangan pa rin naming ipagpatuloy kung ano man ‘yung ginagawa niya at dapat niyang gawin para sa mga protection at rights ng mga OFWs,” said Estrada. (It is so sad, but we still need to continue the work she did and could have done for the protection and rights of OFWs.)

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Susan ‘Toots’ and the Ople legacy

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Lobbying together

Federation of Free Workers national president Sonny Matula recalled the times that they worked together in lobbying for crucial policies that protected the rights of workers.

She was one with other worker advocates when the Philippines ratified International Labor Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention in September 2012, and when the late former president Benigno Aquino III passed the Kasambahay Law in January 2013.

A decade later, they remained in touch to help Filipino workers in the Philippines and abroad.

Maraming mga OFW na nakakulong, o hinahabol ng kanilang mga employer. Marami kaming mga sulat kay Secretary Ople na nagawan ng paraan ng DMW at… naibalik sa Pilipinas ang mga workers,” said Matula. (There are many OFWs who are detained, or who have employers going after them. We wrote many letters to Secretary Ople, and the DMW was able to find a way to bring the workers back to the Philippines.)

Matula reiterated that he could not forget the way they helped each other to pass the Kasambahay Law, or Republic Act No. 10361.

Kasi napakaimportante ‘yan, hindi lang sa mga manggagawa sa ibang bansa, kundi sa mga manggagawa rin dito sa loob ng bansa, lalong lalo na ‘yung mga domestic workers natin,” he added. (Because that is so important, not just for the workers in other countries, but also workers here in the Philippines, especially our domestic workers.)

RA 10361 ensures fair treatment, just compensation, and decent working conditions for domestic workers in the Philippines.

“Secretary Toots shepherded the Department of Migrant Workers from inception to birth to its first year of existence masterfully. The transition of migrant worker-related functions from the DOLE (Department of Labor and Employment) to the new department would not have been smoother if it were another public servant at the helm [of] the DMW,” Matula’s Federation of Free Workers said in a separate statement.

Even beyond death, Ople’s advocacy for OFW rights continues. The Ople family requested that instead of flowers, mourners could donate to the Blas F. Ople Policy Center instead, the non-government organization Ople founded in 2004 centered on OFW rights.

Ople’s remains will be in Malacañang for a closed necrological service on Monday, August 28, and then transferred to the DMW building in Ortigas on the same day at 5 pm, where her remains will stay overnight.

Her remains will be brought back to Heritage for cremation and inurnment on Tuesday, August 29. –

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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.