"... for her outstanding and courageous work to stop violence against women and abuses of migrant and poor workers."
Congratulations are in order for all recipients of the 2005 Right Livelihood Awards but most especially to GSN's very own Irene Fernandez, founder of Tenaganita in Kuala Lumpur [see below for RLAF interview with Irene two days ago, and a copy of Irene's biography, and click read more for Irene's thoughts on the 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize and much else] We are, as always, so proud of you Irene - Lynette
Right Livelihood Awards 2005 Irene Fernandez (2005) Malaysia Interview with Irene Fernandez on September 26, 2005, conducted by Ole von Uexkull, Right Livelihood Award Foundation Q: What is the situation of migrant workers in Malaysia today?
A: For the migrant workers it's still very trying and very challenging. Mainly because the protection is very very low in terms of enforcement of laws and in terms of the legal status in the country, which can be terminated by the employer anytime and then they are forced to return home....
Q: What are you doing to help them?
A: What we do then: We would receive cases of complaints from migrant workers and we would then negotiate or file court cases on their behalf. And if they are arrested unlawfully, then we would also intervene with a team of volunteer lawyers that we have. This is actually what brought about a focus to the situation of migrant workers in the country, where, you know, one out of every three workers is a migrant worker.
Q: What was your greatest achievement in the work for migrant workers and other poor labourers?
A: The greatest achievement would be really for me putting their agenda into visibility, not only with the government of Malaysia, but also regionally. And today it has become a global concern as well, whereby various human rights and labour rights groups now see the need for a better and a more managed migration in the context of human and labour rights.
Q: Why were you sentenced to one year in prison?
A: In 1995, I had exposed the horrific and dehumanizing conditions of migrant workers in immigration detention camps in the country after interviewing more than 300 former detainees. The government denied such conditions of torture, of provision of very little food, of people dying of dehydration, of malnutrition related diseases, of deaths in the camps. And instead of investigating into the allegations, they then investigated me and charged me in 1996 under the Printing Presses and Publication Act for publishing false news. Then after a long drawn trial in 2003, October 16, I was found guilty and convicted to 12 months imprisonment. I am very clear that there cannot be any compromise on the issue of the human rights of migrant workers or of any person. And then I have made an appeal to the High Court, since then there has been no date given for my hearing, for my appeal. And my passport is still impounded and each time I need to travel I will have to get an invitation, then apply to the courts for the release of my passport. I am still not sure if I will have to spend one year in prison. But at the same time, for me the whole process has been in many ways a victory, because then the migrant workers developed a new kind of strength in consciousness that is so important in the whole empowering process.
Q: What does the award mean to you?
A: It is really a recognition of the work with the communities that I have so much fashioned. It is also a recognition at the global level for the people to look at the conditions of migrant workers and of marginalized communities. And the award will be now a way for me to put the money into strengthening the work that is in process. ---------------------------
Irene Fernandez is a Malaysian campaigner for the rights of the poorest: migrant workers, farm workers, domestic workers, prostitutes and AIDS sufferers. She is still working, even though a conviction and year's prison sentence hangs over her head on the trumped-up charge of "maliciously publishing false news".
She was born in Malaysia in 1946 and has three children and several foster children. She began her career as a high school teacher. She became involved with the Young Christian Workers Movement (YCW), based in Brussels, and in 1970 gave up her teaching career to become a full-time organiser for young workers. She became national president of the Malaysian YCW in 1972-75 and was a member of the international committee from 1973-75.
During that time, she was able to organise the first textile workers union and began programmes to create trade unions in the free trade zones. She also focused on the development of women leaders in the labour movement.
In 1976, she joined the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) and worked on consumer education, launching the consumer clubs for secondary school children to teach them about basic needs, safety and protection of the environment. She also began a consumer programme for rural women, linked to a breast-feeding campaign and the Nestl頢oycott.
In 1986, she led campaigns to stop violence against women. Various women's groups mushroomed as a result of these campaigns. One was the All Women's Action Society, of which Fernandez was president for five years. It is now one of the strongest women's advocacy groups in Malaysia. The Domestic Violence Act, Sexual Harassment Code and changes to the laws related to rape are all a result of its work.
That same year, she was the founder member of the Asia Pacific Women Law and Development (APWLD). This regional organisation was designed to bring together women lawyers and activists to look at women's law across the Far East. She was director for more than 10 years.
From 1992, she was the chair of the Pesticide Action Network, working for the elimination of pesticides and developing sustainable agriculture. One of the key areas was the inclusion of the gender dimension and perspective in sustainable agriculture, making visible the invisible women farmers of Asia. This in turn led to campaigns on health, against GMOs, and taking back control of seeds.
Fernandez also founded the Tenaganita organisation, which she still runs, in 1991 in Kuala Lumpur. It campaigns for the rights of foreign workers, up to three million of whom are in Malaysia. Foreign workers have been lured into the country, as a deliberate policy of the Malaysian government and have played a critical role in the country's recent economic success, but many now find themselves suffering the most appalling abuses and are detained in camps as undesirables.
Tenaganita works to document these problems, but also runs a half-way house for prostitutes with HIV, and a number of other programmes relating to migrant and poor workers' health, education, awareness and human rights. It also works with organisations in neighbouring countries to provide health, legal and pre-departure information for workers. Tenaganita has this year drawn attention to controversial plans by the Malaysian government to deport more than a million foreign migrants. At first, the organisation was funded by the German NGO Bread for the World, Hivos and Novib, but since Malaysia is no longer considered a 'developing' country, this money has stopped. Tenaganita's current budget is running at Euros 350,000, from various funding sources, mostly foreign foundations. It now has 15 staff and 150 volunteers.
In 1995, Fernandez published a report on the abuse of migrant workers, cataloguing the malnutrition, physical and sexual abuse and the appalling conditions the workers endure, and set out the facts about the detention camps where they end up and where many of them die. The research included interviews with as many as 300 migrant workers. They, and those brave enough later to give evidence in court in support of Fernandez, testified to repeated beatings, sleep deprivation, and sexual humiliation. The embarrassed government admitted that 46 people had died of various medical conditions in their detention centres, but refused to debate the issue in Parliament. Then in March 1996, Fernandez was arrested at home and charged with 'maliciously publishing false news'. Three years later, only the prosecution had made their case when the trial was delayed by the higher profile trial of the then Deputy Prime Minister, In the intervening period, many of the witnesses Fernandez was relying on were deported.
Her trial dragged on until 2003 when she was finally found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, having by then appeared in court more than 300 times. She is currently on bail pending an appeal. It has been the longest trial in Malaysian history. While on bail, her passport is confiscated and she is banned from standing for election. During the trial, the offices of Tenaganita were bugged and raided twice by government officers. The funds for their half-way house for women and children with HIV were stopped, though they were able to raise other money and re-open six months later. The house is now managed separately from Tenaganita.
The prosecution has succeeded in intimidating NGOs and commentators in Malaysia, but Fernandez has courageously refused to limit her work or blunt her message, even though the prison term hangs over her head. She has never used or advocated violence and has always worked in an open and legal way. She was therefore a prime candidate for adoption by Amnesty International, which has been unequivocal in its support for her. Contact Details: Irene Fernandez Tenaganita Penthouse, Wisma MLS 31, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman 50100 Kuala Lumpur Malaysia