- Published on Monday, 31 March 2014 17:55
KUALA LUMPUR: Opposition politicians and the public took to social media today, paying tribute to migrant workers’ champion Irene Fernandez who died this morning.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president Tian Chua was among the first to confirm the news of her death when he tweeted: “Sad news: rights activist Irene Fernandez passed away in Serdang Hospital a while ago. We have lost a dear comrade & old friend.
“She is a good friend , a vocal person whom I have known since the 80′s. She is a dear friend to Pakatan and her work is respected across the divide and appreciated by the government. This is a great loss.”
Irene was a PKR vice-president during the early years of the party’s foundation and stood as Subang MP in the 1999 elections.
The former teacher-turned activist was born in 1946 to an Indian immigrant father who was a worker in one of the many rubber plantations in the country before Malaysia achieved independence.
A prominent advocate for fair and equal treatment of migrant workers, Tenaganita’s co-founder and director also spoke out against human trafficking and championed various other causes, including women’s rights, free and fair elections, workers’ health and safety, and consumer protection.
The 68-year-old social activist, who lived in Seremban, was rushed to the hospital 5 days ago after she suffered breathing difficulties en route to the presentation of the People’s Tribunal’s findings on the 13th general election in Subang Jaya.
She underwent an angiogram at the hospital, but died 5 days later at 10.58am this morning.
Her sister, Josie, said Irene’s body would be taken back to her home in Seremban this evening. The wake will be held at 570, Lorong Jambu 1/3, Taman Sg Ujong, Jalan Rasah, Seremban.
On Thursday, her body will be brought to her other residence at 29, Jalan SS15/5E (in Subang).
The funeral will take place at 3pm on Thursday at the Divine Mercy Church in Shah Alam.
“Her body would be cremated as per her wishes after the church service and the ashes would be buried next to our parents’ grave in Sungai Petani,” Josie, who is also an activist, added.
Josie told Free Malaysia Today that Irene, who leaves a son and 2 daughters, would be remembered as a “good mother, great daughter, great sister and an activist par excellence”.
Josie, Irene’s husband Joseph Paul and the couple’s 3 children were with her at the time.
Irene began her career as an activist in the Young Christian Workers Movement (YCW) in the early 1970s. By 1972, she had risen to become the national president of the Malaysian chapter of YCW, a post she held until 1975.
Irene concentrated on upholding the rights of those forgotten by mainstream society, such as labourers, migrant workers and abused women.
She became one of the first women activists in the country through her involvement in the All Women’s Action Society (Awam) and the Asia Pacific Women Law and Development (APWLD), of which she was one of the co-founders.
Klang Member of Parliament Charles Santiago called her a fearless fighter in his tweet, adding that he had known her for more than 30 years.
Malaysiakini chief executive officer Premesh Chandran paid tribute to Irene on Facebook, saying that she had given her life to fight injustice.
“She was dragged through the courts for highlighting the fact that migrant workers were dying in custody. She will be remembered well.
“Human rights activist Irene Fernandez passed away today. A true champion of migrant workers & d oppressed. RIP, you fought the good fight.”
Irene’s cause on migrant workers continued throughout her life. In 1991, she established Tenaganita, a non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of foreign workers in the country.
In 1995, she published a detailed report on the conditions of the migrant workers in the country, cataloguing the abuse they endure here, including their terrible working conditions and abuse, both physical and psychological.
Irene was charged in court for “maliciously publishing false news” in March 1996. In 2003, Irene was found guilty and given a one-year jail term. However, she was released pending appeal and was acquitted in 2008.
She was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 2005. The awards, dubbed the “Alternative Nobel Prize”, was established in 1980 to “honour and support those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing (humanity) today”.