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Irene Fernandez

Malaysia , Class of 2006

Irene Fernandez

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The late Irene Fernandez was a well-known activist and advocate in Malaysia, supporting the rights of women, and the rights of Migrant workers, for decades.

She began her career as a high school teacher, although she quickly moved into union organizing and women’s rights within the Malaysian labor union context. In the 1980s she was involved with several women’s rights campaigns, and helped, through her work with those organizations, to pass certain laws relating to violence against women. It was in the early 1990s that she began to get more involved with anti-trafficking work. She founded Tenaganita in 1991, an NGO that focuses on migrant workers, trafficking victims, and protecting those who are vulnerable to trafficking as well as protecting and rehabilitating victims of trafficking. Malaysia has millions of foreign workers from all around Southeast Asia. Many of these workers face horrible conditions, mistreatment, abuse, and harassment, sometimes in government detention centers.

In 1995, she published a report about these detention centers, and the abuse that the migrants in them faced. Drawing from over 300 interviews, the report alleged miserable conditions, and that 46 people had passed away in these centers. Ms. Fernandez was arrested for publishing the report. Her trial was concluded in 2003, when she was found guilty. However, she was able to appeal. The Appeal was not heard until 2008, when a judge overturned her conviction and she was acquitted of all charges. Amnesty International campaigned for her throughout her 13 year trial. In 2005, Ms. Fernandez was given a Trafficking in Persons Report Hero Award for her work with Tenaganita. That work included activities related to the protection of migrant workers, including preventative measures such as pre-departure information sessions and assistance in the surrounding countries. The organization also ran, and still runs, a halfway house for ex-sex trafficking victims with HIV. They also published a video in 2005 which focused on several stories of people who had been trafficked into forced labor situations, entitled “Breaking Labor.”

In the 2014 TIP Report, Malaysia was dropped to the level of a Tier 3 country. This is the lowest level in the TIP Report. It is primarily a destination country, although also a source and a transit country. While there is sex trafficking, the overwhelming majority of trafficking happens to the vast migrant worker population. The government has much to do to combat trafficking and bring its actions into line with the minimum standards for combatting trafficking. 

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