By Hele Ikimotu and Brandon Ulfsby

Yvonne Te Ruki-Rangi-O-Tangaroa Underhill-Sem

Associate Professor Yvonne Te Ruki-Rangi-O-Tangaroa Underhill-Sem, who visited Kiribati in June 2017

Two prominent New Zealand academics have recently returned from discussing labour mobility policies and long term sustainable development plans in Tarawa, Kiribati. Access to overseas labour markets is a key development priority for the country and part of wider development strategy the country which is dealing with the devastating effects of climate change.

The research team – Associate Professor Yvonne Te Ruki-Rangi-O-Tangaroa Underhill-Sem, from the University of Auckland and Emeritus Professor Richard Bedford, from Auckland University of Technology, have been working on a New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research project titled ‘Labour Markets in the Pacific.’ The research trip to Kiribati was one component of a larger project initiated by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). The project also includes upcoming research visits to Fiji and Tonga. One overall objective of the project is to examine development impacts and future policy directions of labour mobility around the Pacific.

Underhill-Sem said countries around the Pacific are looking at how to address issues of high unemployment especially with growing numbers of young people who aspire to have paid employment. “Tarawa is home to many people. It is their home and you certainly got the feeling that people didn’t want to leave. It was about people wanting to do things so they could stay,” she said. “One way to accommodate this growing demand is to extend the current labour mobility programmes, and we had good discussions with policy makers mostly around what they were thinking for the future for labour mobility.”

She said there is widespread public support for seasonal work programmes, however there are also challenges. “There’s downsides in terms of how people feel when they go to a new place … what if they don’t like the place, the work, or the employer?”

Underhill-Sem said there are also flow on effects within their home islands particularly if key family members are abroad. For example, research on seafarers who leave Kiribati, particularly men, reveal generational consequences due to the absence of key members of households.

“On the one hand while there would have been some material prosperity and advancement there is also a lot of emotion with a parent that comes and goes,” she said.

Underhill-Sem is pleased with what they learned from their trip and said they came out with what they believed to be a very considered approach to labour mobility policies within Kiribati and the Pacific. She added that “There are some hard decisions confronting Kiribati. The government of President Taneti Maamau is developing a new national development plan and working to build on past policies which talked about migration with dignity. This government is in an interesting phase of framing their development plans.”