‘If people’s lives are at risk, how can you sit back and pretend you don’t know?’ This kind of attitude has landed Irene Fernandez in very hot water more than once. But it’s an integral part of her job. As director of Kuala Lumpur-based rights organization Tenaganita (Women’s Force), Fernandez speaks out for the poorest, most marginalized people in Malaysian society – the country’s three million migrant workers.
The migrants are employed in the lowest paid, least regulated jobs as domestics, plantation hands and electronics operatives – the hidden drivers of Malaysia’s economic success story. Fernandez, 59, began working with them in 1995. Back then she was preparing a report on the spread of HIV/AIDS, but soon discovered they had more immediate problems.
Excluded from any protection under Malaysia’s labour laws, the migrants were often trapped in a Catch-22, with employers demanding their passports before offering them work, then selling them on like slaves to other contractors. If the police found them without papers they were arrested and taken to immigration camps. There, at the hands of corrupt officials, they were subjected to widespread abuse. Women spoke of rape and having to give sexual favours in return for clean water and sanitary towels. Sleep deprivation, beatings and the withdrawal of vital medication were commonplace.
When Fernandez published these reports about the camps, it provoked international outrage. Among the migrant workers were nationals from many of Malaysia’s poorer neighbours: the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma and Bangladesh. For the Malaysian Government, it was a public relations disaster. Its reaction was decisive. On 18 March 1996, Fernandez was arrested for ‘maliciously spreading false news’.
‘All we wanted was [for] the Government to do an independent investigation into the camps,’ says Fernandez, still incredulous almost a decade later. ‘Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine they would arrest me.’ The subsequent court case attracted global attention. Amnesty International called Fernandez a ‘legitimate human rights defender’ and raised concerns about the independence of the judiciary. (In Malaysia, magistrates and public prosecutors belong to the same government legal agency.) During the trial, Fernandez and her witnesses were threatened, phone lines were bugged and her offices raided twice by the Government.
‘Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine they would arrest me’
Incredibly, the prosecution then took three years to make its case – a time during which many of Fernandez’s original interviewees left Malaysia. ‘I had to travel to Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh to search for the witnesses,’ she recalls. ‘It was incredibly expensive for us.’ The final defence bill came to 1.5 million ringgit ($400,430).
On 16 October 2003, after the longest trial in Malaysian history, Fernandez was found guilty and sentenced to 12 months in prison. However, she still remains free on bail pending an appeal that her Government seems in no great hurry to hear.
The daughter of Indian migrants, Fernandez recognizes the tension between East Asia’s fifth-largest economy and its cheap, increasingly female foreign workforce. She believes the exploitation of migrants reflects a growing racial-class divide within Malaysian society.
‘The sad thing is that it’s like history repeating itself. First there was the colonial period. We’ve achieved independence, but now we’re seeing the same dominant relationships develop.’
And, says Fernandez, these dominant relationships display little respect: ‘I remember we were doing some research with Filipino domestic workers at St John’s Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur. It was Palm Sunday, a very important day for them. Suddenly the police arrived and carried out a raid. The women were just herded up and taken away to detention camps. It was incredibly insensitive.’
For all the blame apportioned to her own Government, Fernandez says responsibility for the abuse of migrants extends far beyond East Asia. Transnational corporations are also complicit. ‘It’s no longer just a national issue; it’s an international concern,’ she says. ‘But thanks to the exposure we have received, this can’t be swept under the carpet.’
In December 2005 Fernandez’s work on behalf of migrant workers was acknowledged at the Right Livelihood Awards (dubbed the Alternative Nobel Prizes) in Stockholm, Sweden. Although Fernandez was the only winner who had to apply to the courts first before she could undertake the trip – her passport is currently impounded – she eventually made it to the awards ceremony and collected a £50,000 ($88,430) cheque for Tenaganita.
Despite no news of her appeal date, the uncertainty of her future hasn’t dampened her spirits. She didn’t stop working throughout her trial. In the last three years, Tenaganita has helped migrant workers win back $146 million in unpaid wages and compensation from Malaysian and foreign corporations.
‘Now they’re going home smiling,’ says Fernandez. ‘They tell me: “Finally I can go back with some money. I can get married and start a life.” It is truly wonderful.’
Irene Fernandez talked with Paul Allen