A Call for Justice for Malaysian Migrant Workers: An Interview with Irene Fernandez

Multinational Monitor, December 1996 | Go to article overview

A Call for Justice for Malaysian Migrant Workers: An Interview with Irene Fernandez


Irene Fernandez is director of Tenaganita (Women Force), a Malaysian non-governmental organization which advocates on behalf of women workers. She is also director of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law & Development, and director of Pesticide Action Network Asia-Pacific. In March 1996, the Malaysian government charged Fernandez with "maliciously publishing false news" in connection with a report she prepared that criticized conditions of government-operated detention centers for foreign migrant workers in Malaysia.

Multinational Monitor: Why is the Malaysian government prosecuting you? Irene Fernandez: The organization with which I work was researching women migrant workers. We did extensive interviews with migrant workers who wanted to share their experiences with us. The experiences were really bad. They spoke of how they were denied food, how they were tortured, how corruption was rife.

We published a manuscript describing the treatment of migrant workers in the detention camps, and held a press conference releasing our findings. This became a very public issue of national concern, and the international media picked it up.

In September 1995, the head of the detention centers had a police report alleging criminal defamation filed against me. The police used that report to investigate me. They called me into questioning, though I claim it was more interrogation than questioning. Most of the questions were about my background, my networks, who is funding our organization and who determines policy and whether they are people from outside the country.

In March of this year, the police arrested me at home, this time under the Printing Presses and Publications Act. The charge was that I maliciously published false statements in the memorandum.

I came out on bail of 3,000 ringits. The trial is now ongoing.

MM: How extensive is the use of migrant labor in Malaysia ?

Fernandez: There are an increasing number of migrant workers coming into the country. They are still mostly unskilled overseas contract workers that work on the plantations, in the construction sector or as domestic help. But they are currently in almost every sector, including services as well as manufacturing. Even the multinationals in the manufacturing sector are now using migrant labor. Though the government figures say there about 2 million migrant workers, our estimates are that there are about 3 million.

MM: Where do the migrants come from?

Fernandez: They come mainly from six countries in Asia: Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma and Pakistan. The government has agreed labor can be recruited from these countries, except Burma. We also have a lot of people coming from India and Sri Lanka. Workers from Burma, India, Sri Lanka and other nations enter the country as undocumented workers.

MM: Why are they coming into Malaysia?

Fernandez: Malaysia is currently experiencing a high economic growth rate. So there is a demand for labor in the country.

With the whole maldevelopment arising from economic globalization, you have uneven development in the region. Workers in Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia see that they can earn much more money in Malaysia, so they plan to come work for a while in Malaysia and then go back home. Many of them have sold whatever property they have, or mortgaged their land, to come.

Recruiters tell the migrant workers that they can earn $300 a month in Malaysia - that is more than a professional can make in Bangladesh.

MM: What are the most serious problems faced by migrant workers in Malaysia?

Fernandez: I find the migrant workers are the most unprotected labor group in the country. That is quite worrying. On the one hand, they are totally unorganized, not even into an association. On the other hand, the role of the bigger companies is hidden away through subcontracting.

Most of these workers come in documented, but they can become undocumented very easily.

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