The labour inspectorate says it’s “under-resourced” and struggling to get around all the country’s resorts.
The concern comes after Cook Islands News revealed overseas workers are being paid beneath the minimum wage and required to work six days a week.
But resorts know when the inspectors are coming; the inspectorate rarely observes any employment abuses.
Resorts and hotels are among the world’s largest and fastest-growing employers. In the Cooks, they are the top foreign exchange earner.
But they require a lot of staff. Many of the jobs are low-skilled positions, and pay poorly. Working conditions are sometimes difficult – meaning hotel jobs are not attractive to the local workers.
Internal Affairs senior inspector Elizabeth Hosking said workers and employers often did not understand their legal rights and responsibilities.
“Our office is under-resourced with only three inspectors to cover the whole of the Cook Islands.
“As we make our way around Rarotonga, most employers have been served with inspection notices, so they are aware that we will be coming around to their business to carry out inspections.”
Hosking said the $7.25 minimum wage was intended to be a starting wage, “not meant to sustain a person for the duration of their work life”.
As workers’ skills and qualifications increase, she said their pay rate should rise accordingly.
For some in the tourism and hospitality sectors, the reality is very different. Despite Cook Islands tourism trying to get more local workers, it is an industry that is now heavily reliant on overseas workers who often do not see a rise in their pay.
This week, Cook Islands News interviewed two resort workers who said they were paid below minimum wage and denied leave.
The news sparked anger: “It’s called slavery to the system, where the rich rule and the poor get poorer,” wrote one reader, Jesse Evans.
Another, Mario Figura, said she was saddened to know it was still happening. “I was working in Raro for five years before I moved to New Zealand, and I heard a lot of personal testimonies from my fellow Filipinos – exactly the same stuff.”
And Michael Aererua said the treatment of the workers was terrible. “Nobody should get away with doing that to anyone, local or foreign.”