Irene Fernandez, Champion Of The Oppressed In Malaysia, Dies At 67

Irene Fernandez, a champion of the oppressed in Malaysia whose indefatigable advocacy for better treatment of foreign migrant workers prompted her government to denounce her as a traitor and human rights groups to shower her with awards, died on March 25 in Serdang, Malaysia. She was 67.

The cause was heart failure, Human Rights Watch said.

Ms. Fernandez abandoned a career as a teacher in her early 20s to fight for social causes. She helped organize the first textile workers union in Malaysia and campaigned for women’s rights, improved consumer education and safer pesticides.

Her signature crusade was for the rights of the poorest and most marginalized people in her relatively rich country: the migrant workers who do the dirty, ill-paying jobs most native Malaysians shun. Foreigners account for more than 16 percent of the work force in a population of 29 million people, and more than half the foreigners are in the country illegally.

Coming from Indonesia, the Philippines and other Asian nations, these illegal workers toil in homes and at palm oil plantations and construction sites. Ms. Fernandez unearthed evidence of their being beaten and nearly starved. In an interview with The New York Times in 2012, she characterized the situation as “slavery days coming back.”

As much as their labors are needed, the illegal workers irritate many Malaysians, as their counterparts do in many countries. Some Malaysians join government-sanctioned volunteer groups to seek them out.

In September, the government began a campaign to arrest and deport 500,000 of these workers; it said their collective use of social services and public education was expensive and went against the government’s policy of relying less on unskilled labor.

Ms. Fernandez condemned the deportation drive, partly because it failed to distinguish refugees from other foreign workers, she said.

She achieved her greatest prominence in 1995, when she interviewed more than 300 migrant workers being detained by the government. They told her of rapes, beatings and inadequate food, water and medical care. In March 1996, after a newspaper printed a memo she had provided detailing her findings, the government charged her with “maliciously publishing false news.”

Her criminal trial dragged on for seven years, one of the longest in Malaysian history. Stanley Augustin, the prosecutor, accused her of blackening her country’s reputation.

“The court must take into account the interests of the nation,” he said. “Freedom of the press is not freedom to say anything you like. It must be confined and cannot hurt the public or national interest.”

She was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison, then released pending appeal. In 2008, an appellate judge reversed her conviction.

In 2012, Ms. Fernandez again outraged her government by telling an Indonesian newspaper that Malaysia was not safe for foreign workers because it did not have a legal framework or specific laws to protect them.

“When she says something like that, doesn’t she realize that her actions do not help the country or the Malaysian people?” Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said in an interview with The New Straits Times, an English-language Malaysian newspaper.

Ms. Fernandez’s parents were Indians who moved to Malaysia to work on a rubber plantation when the country was under British rule. She was born there on April 18, 1946.

She traced her awareness of social and political issues to her childhood. As the daughter of a plantation supervisor, she was told not to play with laborers’ children. “I always found that a big conflict in me,” she told The Times.

She became a teacher, but at 23 left the security of a government job for the uncertain life of an activist, working for various labor and rights groups, including the Young Christian Workers Movement.

In 1991 she formed the organization Tenaganita (the name means women’s force in Malay), which ran shelters for migrants and victims of human trafficking. It eventually expanded its efforts to include men.

Ms. Fernandez’s many awards include the Amnesty International Award in 1998, the International PEN Award in 2000, the Jonathan Mann Award in 2004 and the Right Livelihood Award in 2005.

Her survivors include her husband of 35 years, Joseph Paul; two daughters, Katrina and Tania; a son, Camerra Jose; and two sisters, Josie and Aegile.

She never lost her taste for battle. During her trial, she told The Los Angeles Times that she was ready for jail.

“It will give me an opportunity to write a report on jail conditions and see what changes need to be made,” she said.

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