Sunday Magazine December 31, 2006
Working for the workers
Veteran campaigner Irene Fernandez talks about her work among Malaysia's migrant workers.
Fight for rights: Irene Fernandez.
IRENE FERNANDEZ, winner of the 2005 Right Livelihood Award (the Alternate Nobel Prize) was in Kochi recently. Daughter of pre-World War II migrant Malayalee parents, she is a campaigner for migrant worker, plantation workers and women's rights. Irene is also a trade union organiser, environmentalist and the central committee member of the National Justice Party of Malaysia.
Why did you give up teaching and plunge into direct public action?
It was more than three decades ago in the early 1970s. Teaching was then the ideal pursuit for women. But I was not satisfied with it. There was poverty all around and high level of unemployment. The Malaysian government had embarked on rapid industrialisation and the focus was on industries employing women. There was mass migration of women from rural to urban centres. Their living conditions were pathetic. At first I thought organising them and that teaching could go together. But soon I realised that I'd have to decide.
Were women then active and visible in Malaysian public life?
Of course, there were organisations like YWCA but few movements in which women were involved. There was another organisation, the Young Christian Workers, which was also male dominated. I got involved with them and, through their international conventions, came into contact with resistance movements in Latin America. I set about organising textile workers. The units in the free trade zones, where the conditions were very exploitative, did not allow outsiders to organise the workers.
Similar to the Special Economic Zones in India?
Yes. The working conditions were not labour-friendly and those who tried to organise workers were victimised. I had to get in under disguise. I became a garment unit worker I learnt about the production line and the harrowing conditions under which the women worked. Sexual exploitation was quite rampant. When the first unit of the National Textile Union was formed, I was exposed. But the government realised the power of organised labour and finally the National Union became a reality.
You were also involved in organising the electronic workers?
Yes, but here the hazards were more and different. We could organise individual unions in individual companies, but never at the national level. The government does not permit it. Even today there is no national union for the electronic workers. So the bargaining capacity is limited.
Malaysia is the largest producer of palm oil and you have been talking about "sustainable palm oil". Please elaborate.
Rain forests are being denuded for palm oil plantations. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are being used on a large scale. Workers in the plantations are exploited. The European Union countries have stipulated stringent conditions regarding environmental impacts, labour practices and transparency. And there are proposals for using palm oil as a bio-fuel. Whether a food item should be used as a fuel while millions go hungry, whether the limited land available is to be used for producing fuel are questions to be answered.
Moving on to crimes against women and domestic violence must have been a natural step in your activism?
Yes. I was the chairperson of the campaign against domestic violence. It ultimately resulted in the "Domestic Violence Act".
Are you happy with the provisions of the Act in Malayasia?
There are many lacunae. The establishment is not gender sensitive. The victim not only undergoes the trauma of violence, but also suffers destitution. Similarly, thousands of women are forced into prostitution. But society joins in their prosecution forgetting that they are the victims. Our endeavour was to bring these invisible women into visibility. Our organisation "Tenaganita", it means "force of women", has telephone action lines and we follow up the cases.
How is a women's organisation taking up the cause of migrant workers?
There are millions of migrant workers in Malaysia. When we took up the cause of HIV-affected women among them, the men too came to us and thus our activities eventually included them too.
Is migration of workers merely the poor seeking a livelihood in a more prosperous shore?
I don't think it is that simple. Workers have become a commodity in the liberalised global scenario. See, they are being referred to as "human capital". The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are encouraging migration to augment foreign exchange accumulation of the third world countries. Their foreign debts are now being repaid by the sweat and blood of the poor.
What specific issue regarding the migrant labourers led to your prison sentence?
In 1995, I published a report on the abuse of migrant workers in detention camps. The government admitted that 46 persons had died of various medical causes, but I was arrested and charged with "maliciously publishing false news". The trial dragged on till 2003, when I was sentenced to one year's imprisonment. I have appealed in the higher court and am on bail now.
Has the Rights Livelihood Award made any change in your position vis-à-vis the government?
Yes, to a certain extent. International recognition does help.
Courtesy The Quest Features and Footage, Kochi