The number of productive workers earning foreign exchange to keep Cook Islands afloat has dropped to just 3000, government says, forcing them to intervene to protect the economy.
Internal affairs minister Mac Mokoroa says the country’s workforce is just 6000 workers, and half of those work for government – not in the productive sectors.
That’s a big decline from a labour force of 7554 in 2011.
The flight overseas of young Cook Islanders makes the economy vulnerable.
“This immigration of labour presents a challenge of depopulation and labour market shortages leading to an increase in the dependence on low migrant labour and lack of competition in the recruitment of high skilled jobs,” Mokoroa said.
The increased workforce volatility required robust and protective policy intervention, he warned.
He was speaking to the International Labour Organisation conference in Switzerland, whose annual conference this year has been focused on eliminating workplace harassment.
He announced Cook Islands was “on the verge” of signing a Decent Work Country Programme, providing international support to create jobs that are productive and deliver a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families.
It comes after Cook Islands News launched an investigation into bullying and mistreatment of low-paid workers in this country, especially migrant labourers in tourism, hospitality and domestic work.
At the conference, the Cook Islands voted to adopt a new Convention to eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work.
Jill Kavana, who manages The Mooring Cafe in Avana, echoed the minister’s sentiments. She pays her staff nearly double the minimum wage, and provides lunch or dinner.
“People who pay their workers poorly? Well, I personally struggle with that,” she said.
“If you want loyalty and respect from your staff, you have to show the same respect by treating them fairly and rewarding them fairly.”
Kavana welcomed initiatives like Step NZ (Short-Term Employment Permits), which allows employers to bring in Kiwis and Australians for up to six months to fill difficult skills shortages.
Mac Mokoroa said the unique status of free association with New Zealand made it easy for Cook Islanders to access education and work in New Zealand and Australia – at the expense of local employers.