In defence of Irene Fernandez

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To continue to vilify Irene and to prosecute her for upholding justice for foreign workers would be a bad misstep, writes Eric Cheah, who rallies to her defence.

Irene Fernandez - Photograph courtesy of

Irene Fernandez has come under severe attack in the mainstream press for statements attributed to her in a Jakarta Post interview. One of those statements was: “Malaysia has no legal framework or a particular law to protect workers.”

While I may not agree fully with her above statement, the statement by Deputy Human Resources Minister Maznah Mazlan is equally thought-provoking. She said: “If foreign workers have issues or have been mistreated, they can lodge a report with the Labour Department or go straight to their respective embassies or even the police. There are avenues for them to seek redress.”

Having provided legal assistance to Vietnamese workers for the last eight years, I, as a member of the legal profession, have seen clearly that the key issue is not a lack of good labour laws or even avenues to seek legal redress BUT a lack of access.

For instance, have we ever done surveys to see how many ordinary Malaysians know where their local Labour Department or Industrial Relations Department (IRD) is located? Do they know why the IRD exists? Well, I can tell you that many Malaysians, even lawyers, do not know. Where does that leave the foreign worker then?

I have personally witnessed and documented, inter alia, the following:

  • A multinational corporation located in one the biggest industrial parks in this country gave as low as RM8.90 for two weeks’ take-home pay to a Vietnamese worker; 1000 Vietnamese went on strike as a result. For the next one month, the company sent its security guards with Rela personnel to the hostel on alternate nights between midnight and 1.00am to forcibly abduct selected workers, even handcuffing them, then taking them to the factory to sign waivers, finally having them deported the next morning;
  • Police arresting a Vietnamese worker and having him charged with murder when he was not even at the scene of the crime; he was released after six months because he was legally represented at the magistrate’s court;
  • A Vietnamese male worker signing up to come to Malaysia to work as a construction worker but ending up in a palm oil plantation, where he lost one eye because he had not been properly trained to cut the fruit;
  • Vietnamese female workers shunted to and fro between hostel and factory, locked up during the week and taken fortnightly to a hypermarket whilst being guarded more tightly than prisoners;
  • Vietnamese female workers targeted for violent crime by local gangsters because they know that even if they’re caught, they are unlikely to be successfully prosecuted and brought to justice as the witnesses (if any) have to return to their home country at some point;
  • A Cambodian maid not paid her wages for more than two years and her employers also merrily did not renew her work permit after the first year, thus rendering her “illegal” — whose fault was it?
  • Many, many cases where the foreign worker takes his or her case to the Labour Department and ends up getting deported by the employer, as allowed to by Immigration, almost as of right.
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Which brings us to another long-standing problem — Immigration has the ultimate supervisory role over the foreign workers and their employers, NOT the Labour Department. That’s what Irene meant by there being no proper legal framework.

Remember the recent case of the 42 female Vietnamese cleaners at Tull Road, Penang? Their outsourcing company left them high and dry with no work for more than two months, without pay and also failed to renew their work permits. The case was highlighted in The Star and what happened in the end? The enforcement department of Immigration said that they found no offence of human trafficking! After public pressure, the A-G announced that the employers would be charged with harbouring, which, of course, is a much lesser offence.

Is it safe being a foreign worker in this country? You tell me.

Over the years, the situation has in fact, improved thanks to the undying efforts of self-sacrificing people like Irene. The foreign workers’ situation can be further improved.

For starters, restore the supervisory authority of the Labour Department over the foreign workers and their employers as being the pre-eminent one.

Second, make it required by law for every company, business or family/person employing a foreign worker/domestic worker to make full and proper disclosure to their employees of the addresses, telephone and fax numbers of the Labour Department, the IRD and their embassies.

I salute Irene. She is a real patriot. She has brought much-needed check and balance for over two decades. During Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s time, she was prosecuted under the Printing Presses Act, then convicted but this was finally overturned on appeal eight years later.

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Irene is considered an iconic figure by social activists worldwide. To continue to vilify her and to prosecute her for upholding justice for the foreign workers would be a bad misstep. It would only result in bringing much more unwanted attention from across the world, which is something our present government can do without.

Why do foreign workers still keep coming? Malaysia is the cheapest destination (cf. Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan) and their other options at home are even bleaker…

We Malaysians really have much soul-searching to do.


The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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najib manaukau
29 May 2012 7.40am

Surely by now all Malaysians know that is what UMno is good for, to shut everyone up when they speak the truth.Above all to imprison them with all kind of cooked up reasons, now everyone knows the true reasons why and how they are hanging on to power for the last 53 years. Bully, intimidations and deceptions a true display and reflection of what they really are….

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