Aotearoa, a series of islands at the edge of Te-Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa or the Pacific Ocean, has a long and layered relationship with the Pacific. As historian Mary Boyd points out, it’s taken New Zealand a long time “to make up its mind that it was a Pacific country and not a European outpost,” because as scholar Alice Te Punga Somerville reminds us, New Zealand itself once was Pacific. However, longstanding connections between Māori and their non- Māori Pacific cousins has—since the 1800s been mediated—by Pākehā and the western worldview which New Zealand society is built on. And so today within Aotearoa, when we talk about Pacific, we don’t talk about the Pacific of which New Zealand is a part of but rather the microcosm of Pacific people inside New Zealand with long (and short) histories unique to this place. For these Pacific people, their New Zealand experience has almost always had a strong relationship to labour and to work.
Pacific people have been coming to New Zealand since the 19th century sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes acting as mediators for on-shore encounters and other times as labourers on whaling ships joining whaling stations or seal-skinning gangs. However, it was the mass migration of the 1960s and 1970s that brought over most of the Pacific families which are in Aotearoa today.
With the heavy losses suffered during WWII New Zealand found itself needing to rebuild. After persuading urban Māori to move into cities the domestic labour force was quickly exhausted. New Zealand’s attention then shifted to international labour sources, first in western Europe and subsequently to the Pacific territories. For Pacific people, formal and informal schemes relating to education and work made New Zealand into a “land of milk and honey” full of opportunities. Established at various periods during the twentieth century, New Zealand leaned on the islands under their administration (Sāmoa, Tokelau, the Cook Islands and Niue) before extending out to Tonga and Fiji.
Bringing traditional values such as “gerontocracy, respect, reciprocity, order, power and authority,” to New Zealand, it was the quiet Pacific labourer that spread across meat works, domestic spaces and forests floors up and down the country. In 1945 there were only 2,159 Pacific people in New Zealand, and by the end of 1966 there were 26,271 and today over 300,000. While many of the Pacific workers received a brutal reality check at the time, it’s the current adult generations of Pacific people, their children and grandchildren which were thought to “reap the harvest of their efforts, while at the same time being presented with new challenges to overcome.” However, new reports on Pacific employees in the workforce suggest otherwise.
Today, Pacific people are a growing population in Aotearoa and it is projected that by 2026 Pacific people will make up a third of Auckland’s total workforce. Yet while Pacific people play a key role in Aotearoa’s labour market they represent some pretty gloomy statistics. Leilani Tamu, Pacific Policy Team Manager at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), tells me that there is an “ongoing over representation of our community in the [manufacturing] sector” and that Pacific people “still remain disproportionately under-represented in highly skilled and highly paid managerial and executive occupations.”
Reporting from the Ministry of Pacific Peoples tells us that Pacific women are mainly in administrative and labourer jobs while Pacific men are most likely to be hired as either a store-person or a labourer. This means that Pacific people are still over-represented in low skilled, low paid roles—roles which are the most at risk of automation over the next 30 years, as innovation increases productivity. Pacific people’s median income is the lowest of all ethnic groups at only $19,700. More Pacific people are engaged in unpaid work compared to the rest of the population and are more likely to look after children or an ill or disabled person as a part of unpaid work.
These cultural commitments to caring roles in family and community are “things which have been critical to our overall survival as the cost of living in NZ, especially in Auckland, has gone up” as Tamu tells me. However, “of all of New Zealand’s ethnic groups, higher proportions of Pacific people report that they do not have enough money to meet their everyday needs.”
Picking up on this, a recent report by the Southern Initiative, along with MBIE, seeks to understand more about “the reasons behind the lack of progression” for Pacific people and how they “enter, and move within, the workforce.” This isn’t just important for the lives and livelihoods of Pacific families and their advancement. Because Pacific people make up the youngest and fastest growing population in Aotearoa, understanding how to—as the report puts it—“maximise the contribution Pacific people can make to realising New Zealand’s future economic success” should be of national interest to us all.
The report, titled Pacific Peoples’ Workforce Challenge: Accelerating the advancement of Pacific people in the workforce joins a small but growing amount of literature on Pacific people and work in Aotearoa. This includes 2016’s Attitude Gap Challenge report which focused on the gap between young South Auckland people looking for work, and employers. As well as the more recent 2017 Early Years Challenge which explored the challenges and opportunities for young families in South Auckland, particularly in the first 1000 days of a child’s life.
The Workforce Challenge revealed a distinction in world views between Pacific and western concepts of advancement and success. Unlike western ideas of vocation and priorities, which hold high regard for the individual’s career and encourages one to climb a metaphorical ladder to increased remuneration and higher status positions, for Pacific people, success is centred in collective concepts of flourishing. The value on the community and inter-generational care responsibilities demonstrates Pacific people’s “resilience and ability to support each other through times of struggle and hardship,” in Tamu’s words.
Success in collective terms—the report tells us—is a person simply being able to consistently support their parent/parents, even if it requires sacrificing personal opportunities which could bring an increase in job status or salary. Personal career and life ambitions are often seen as subordinate to a person’s role in their family and wider community responsibilities. Often, these defined roles will allow for younger siblings to pursue their dreams, as the immediate needs of the family were met by older siblings who had moved into the work- force. The significant and familiar rewards of being part of a close-knit family and community offers value to one’s life.
This however is an imposition when “employers and employment opportunities that provide the flexible conditions that enable us to leverage these strengths” are difficult to find. Tamu says that “while many employers place great importance on the value we bring to their organisations (loyalty, generosity, service) they don’t always see leadership qualities in us because the way they think about leader- ship is based on a very individualised model that is often at odds with our value set.” “O le ala i le pule o le tautua,” is a well-known Sāmoan proverb about leadership, it translates to “the road to leadership is through service.” Service, not a commonly associated western leadership value, underpins all roles of status in customary Sāmoa, we lead from behind not on top.
For Pacific people who value the collective and reciprocity, upward movement in work hierarchy could sometimes be seen as counter-cultural. Family sits at the centre of this. It isn’t just money people want to offer their families but also time and proximity. Being able to look after your parents and help with the day to day needs of the wider family was a big consideration for people when looking for work and was regarded as a measure of success in and of itself. The need to be close to family could reduce the choices available for employees. Ultimately, rather than chasing money and career success as reaped by the individual it is cultural values of the collective which seem to win. And while Pacific employees are interested in progress- ing it has to be done in a way which still serves the needs of the wider family group or community.
I feel this pull between worlds immensely. When my papa who had dementia moved to live with my parents, there was a pride and a beauty I felt in being able to be the one (because I work freelance) to drive him to the bank and to the store to get his favourite foods. I would make sure his radio was playing, and ask him stories about life in Sāmoa. That was a part of my collective duty and family responsibilities, but it was also a privilege to be able to spend that time with him, and with that privilege I felt a nagging guilt that I wasn’t “working” in a recognisable way.
Ultimately, these broadly held values and competing roles of family, community, and work responsibility are difficult to navigate across much of New Zealand’s existing employment landscape, much of which is based on cultural expectations of autonomous individuals striving for personal advancement. This ideal of a productive, “work ready” employee elevates and rewards those who are free from competing commitments, asking for standards of “professionalism” where a person’s personal life should not intrude on their availability or productivity for their employer.
Fortunately, many industries show signs of shrugging off these inhuman and unrealistic expectations, with corporate culture adopting and acknowledging values of community, family, and personal expression as core to employee welfare—at least in theory. The challenge for all workplaces in a society of increasing diversity is to figure out how to understand and accommodate a diversity of vocational culture and practice.
It’s clear that there are different expectations, expressions, and responsibilities for Pacific people, particularly when working in non-Pacific workplaces. However, the overwhelming truth is that just like any other person, Pacific employees want to feel valued, understood, and respected in their roles by their employers and colleagues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research shows workplaces that demonstrated this kind of openness and awareness tended to create greater loyalty.
During the peak of Pacific migration to Aotearoa in the 1970s the Vocational Training Council, a government body, produced a series of booklets with the aim of “improving work relations between Europeans and Polynesians.” Booklets were made for employers titled Understanding Polynesians which “describes the different Polynesian societies and makes some general comments about the attitudes and values of Polynesians.” Other booklets were printed for employees, titled, Understanding Pākehā, printed in various Pacific languages.
While these booklets are full of cultural stereotypes which would now make most people uncomfortable, what they reveal is that early on in the story of Pacific employment in New Zealand, there were attempts to make workplace environments better for both the employer and employee, offering ways to understand and overcome cultural differences. It was—at the time—disingenuous to boil down diverse and dynamic communities into single booklets and would be equally problematic for today’s 1st, 2nd (and perhaps 3rd in some instances) generation born Pacific people. However, these booklets are essentially the 1970s equivalent of what in 2019 we call cultural competency. The question really becomes then, how do we make use of the Workforce Challenge report so that we don’t find ourselves back here again in another 50 years’ time, printing booklets and hoping for basic understanding and accommodation of cultural differences?
While a collision of worlds is clearly something which is not easily solvable, the Workforce Challenge offered a number of key principles to move forward. Among these were a need to look beyond the individual, acknowledging the critical importance of family and community on career decision making; clearer communication between employees and employers; creating more obvious and explicit pathways to leadership; and encouraging employers and colleagues to see themselves as playing a major part in encouraging Pacific success in their workplace.
“Pacific people are one of the youngest and fastest growing ethnic population groups in the country—our median age is 22” Tamu explains, “which means almost 50% of our whole population is the workforce that will be absolutely critical to the country’s wellbeing in terms of labour market skills, knowledge and innovation in the coming 10-20 years.” And yet as Tamu explains, “our community experiences disproportionate levels of in-work poverty and disparity and has a decreasing asset base relative to the rest of the population.” For Tamu, figuring out how to shift the dial on these significant challenges is what keeps her going and keeps her up at night.
By 2038, Auckland’s Pākehā population is predicted to drop below 50%. This means that more than a third of all Aucklanders will be Asian, 20% of the population Pacific and 20% Māori. If this “super-diversity” is any indication for the rest of the country, then the need to learn how to work with each other becomes even more pertinent.
For New Zealand’s Pacific diaspora, who have grown up balancing multiple priorities and ways of being, the task of finding ways to thrive is imminent and ongoing. Ultimately Tamu believes that the answers will come from a “by Pacific for Pacific” strategy, where the “role of government and key stakeholders is to get in behind the community to support and empower us in realising those aspirations.” The story of Pacific people in Aotearoa is continuing, and it is up to us, and the people in communities around us to decide what the next chapter will say.