OFWs recall Ople’s help in times of pain
MANILA, Philippines — Before her appointment last year as the first secretary of the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), the late Susan “Toots” Ople had almost two decades of service looking after the welfare of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
In 2004, Ople founded the Blas F. Ople Policy Center and Training Institute in honor of her father, the late senator and labor minister. It was through this nongovernmental organization that she was able to help many OFWs in distress, according to two workers interviewed by the Inquirer.
Leah Rollon, 45, worked in Syria as a domestic helper in 2010, enduring nine years of abuse in the house where she stayed.
Rollon recalled being beaten up by her employer, a single mother, who would sometimes bang her head on the wall whenever she made a mistake doing her chores.
Several times her employer would even wrap Rollon’s head with tape, leaving only her nose exposed so she could breathe
“They made me sleep in the bathroom and I wasn’t allowed to go out of the house. I got so thin because they only fed me once a day and it would just be bread,” Rollon said.
She said she tried to escape once but was caught. Her employer took her passport and had her chained in the house.
Rollon had no contact with her family; they thought she had already died because her employer was not sending them her salary.
She finally managed to flee from that house in 2019. Rollon went straight to the Philippine Embassy, but all it could do was shelter her in its premises for two more years—until the Ople Center learned about her case.
It was through Ople’s assistance that Rollon was able to return to the country in February 2021.
‘She gave me hope’
Rollon started anew and opened a store, again with Ople’s help, as the Ople Center provided her P5,000 in financial assistance, as well as meat products and other food items that she could sell.
“She (Ople) was one of the people who really saved me,” Rollon said.
Angelita Gamboa, 47, a former housemaid in Saudi Arabia, did not experience the same abuse as Rollon.
But the family that hired her in 2016 kept her passport and also forced her to work for their relatives—without getting any extra pay.
“My contract stated I had a day off but I had none of that. That would’ve been fine, but I was so overworked. I felt my body breaking because I only had three hours of sleep each day, sometimes none,” she said in an interview.
After five years, Gamboa said she sought the help of her recruitment agency but was told instead that “you’re there to work, not have a vacation.”
“I tried to call the Polo (Philippine Overseas Labor Office), but they didn’t do anything either. It was only Ma’am Ople who helped me. I only had to ask once and she called the Polo right away and the Department of Foreign Affairs to bring me back home,” Gamboa said.
‘Passion for service’
On her return to the country in 2021, the Ople Center gave her P10,000 in cash assistance and some food and meat products to help her start a small business.
Gamboa said Ople “gave me hope during the darkest days of my life.”
Both Rollon and Gamboa said they were saddened to hear about Ople’s death. They said they hoped that the Ople Center’s work would continue.
The DMW chief succumbed to cancer on Aug. 22 at age 61. Her niece, Diana Ople San Jose, said her aunt had left the Ople Center in her care.
Various labor groups have paid tribute to the late secretary. For the Federation of Free Workers, “Her passion for service for migrant workers stems from her proven dedication to the plight of Filipino workers. Her belief in social dialogue has given the government better policy options.”
The Nagkaisa labor coalition acknowledged Ople’s “unwavering dedication to migrant workers,” while Migrante International recalled how she always kept communication lines open between her department and labor groups, even those that were critical of her stand on certain issues.
Father, daughter legacy
Bohol Rep. Kristine Alexie Tutor, in a social media post on Tuesday, said “Secretary Ople leaves behind a lasting lifelong legacy of public service and of advocacy devoted largely to overseas workers, their families and the issues that matter most to their lives.”
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Ople Center, the Ople family said in a message addressed to friends and supporters.
Ople’s sister, Councilor Dalisay Ople-San Jose of Hagonoy town, Bulacan, said the donations would help sustain “the legacy of both Secretary Toots and our father for the protection and interests of our needy migrant workers.”
Harvard Kennedy Alumni Association of the Philippines is scheduled to hold a tribute to Ople on Sunday at Heritage Memorial Park in Taguig City.
From Heritage, Ople’s remains will be moved on Aug. 28 to Malacañang, then to the DMW in Mandaluyong City.
Cremation and inurnment will be on Aug. 29 at Heritage.