Monday, June 17, 2013


Former Labor Undersecretary and migrant worker rights activist Susan “Toots” Ople is being honored this week by the State Department for her work in fighting trafficking in persons (TIP).

Every year, the State Department fetes individuals around the world who’ve devoted their lives to the fight against human trafficking. They work often in great peril to protect victims, punish offenders and raise awareness of criminal human trafficking activities.

Ople is the youngest daughter of former Senate President, longtime Labor Secretary and journalist Blas Ople.  She heads the labor advocacy organization named after him, writes for the tabloid Tempo and the Panorama weekend magazine, has a radio program on dwIZ station and serves as consultant for the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Manila.

She has been deeply involved in various campaigns to stop human trafficking and abuses by illegal recruiters, including the creation of an OFW Re-integration Council and improving the labor justice system in the Philippines (e.g., Ople has tirelessly denounced contractualization practices in the country that she views as one of the chief impediments against improving the lives of Filipino workers).

She finished grade school at St. Theresa’s College in Quezon City, secondary education at Sandusky High School in Michigan, and the University of Sto. Thomas where she earned a Communication Arts degree in 1984. She took post-graduate studies at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

The Philippines barely missed US sanctions for her seeming ambivalence to the problem of human trafficking. Two years ago, the country was removed from the Tier 2 watch list, after teetering on the verge of being demoted anew to Tier 3 where the US government would have been legally bound to stop giving aid to the Philippines.

Although the TIP campaign is described as gaining impetus, especially after President Aquino signed a law (RA 10364) last February to stiffen penalties and offer better protection for victims of human trafficking, the problem remains serious.

The Philippines, the 2012 State Department report said, “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” but acknowledged “it is making significant efforts to do so.”

Vice President Jejomar Binay, former chairman of the Inter-Agency Council Against Human Trafficking (IACAT) which is credited with helping to turn the tide, blamed poverty, ignorance and crime as chief culprits of the TIP crisis in the Philippines. The country, he added, remains a source, destination and transit point of human trafficking.

“Men, women and children continue to be subjected to forced labor in factories, construction sites, fishing vessels, agricultural plantations, mines, quarries, and private homes, where many trafficked women and girls suffer sexual abuse, rape and physical violence,” Binay said recently.

The State Department’s decision to honor Ople apparently recognizes the growing role of non-government organizations (NGOs) in combating TIP. The Blas Ople Policy Center is one of the key civic groups that have been able to mount a global campaign while overcoming the domestic political, economic and religious barriers which usually make a nationally coordinated drive difficult.

At least 5 of the 29 TIP-related convictions reported last year were the result of cases filed or prosecuted by NGOs, the State Department noted. It also lamented the alleged lack of understanding of the country’s anti-trafficking labor network among “many judges, prosecutors, social service workers and law enforcement officials – a significant impediment to successful prosecutions.”

Meanwhile, the government has tightened the watch against recruitment agencies, seaports and airports to physically block movement of potential victims, but Ople is lobbying to push the war closer to the frontline. “What’s said is we rely on immigration as the last sentinel when it should be on the prevention side, in the barangays (where it starts),” she explained in one TV interview.

Despite the recent impressive economic strides, she believes many Filipinos – most of them the poorest of the poor, women and children – will remain vulnerable to traffickers. “Even if we say the economy is growing,” Ople averred, “The time it takes to cascade all these gains is so slow. Then you have these sweet-talking recruiters. All they need is the promise of a better life.”