The new agreement to support and facilitate the Cook Islands Pearl Farmers’ Initiative (CIPFI) will allow Cook Islands pearl farms to employ I-Kiribati workers as pearl farm divers, labourers, cooks and housekeepers.
It was signed at the Office of the Prime Minister by Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna and Kiribati’s minister of employment and human resource, Ioteba Redfern, on Monday.
The pearl farmers’ initiative is a pearl farming employment scheme between the two governments.
A statement from MMR said the initiative aims to meet employment and skills gaps in areas of demand by the Cook Islands pearl industry.
Puna described the MOU as a milestone as the first agreement of its kind between the Cook Islands and another nation.
“Thank you for making history by your visit. This is a perfect example of South-South cooperation: two small countries in the Pacific coming together to see how they can possibly work together in order to help each other,” said Puna.
“This agreement is a labour of love for many people. This MOU has been driven by our desire to ensure that both parties would benefit and be looked after.”
He added that while protecting the interests of the pearl farmers is a priority, the workers brought in from Kiribati would also be well treated under the agreement.
Puna said the initiative had been introduced in direct response to years of decline in black pearl production in Manihiki, which was partly due to a lack of human resources. It is envisioned the agreement will help boost pearl production over time.
Redfern said his government also saw the MOU as a win for both countries.
“For us it’s going to provide employment and income for our people and we also look forward to the benefit it will have for the Cook Islands in providing labour for the pearl farming sector.”
Redfern is visiting Rarotonga this week with a four-member delegation which includes secretary of the ministry for employment and human resource, Bwakura Metutera-Timeon.
“We will try our very best to provide you with the best workers. We are very keen to find work for our people in the Pacific,” said Metutera-Timeon.
Following the signing of the MOU, the Kiribati delegation met with the Manihiki Pearl Farmers’ Association and MMR representatives.
Pearl Farmers’ Association chairman Kora Kora described the MOU as a great step toward a successful and prosperous relationship between the two nations.
Executive member Temu Okotai said pearl farmers have been relying on imported labour for at least 25 years to support the industry.
“It has to work both ways for the Cook Islands and Kiribati, and we hope the MOU sets the scene for that. We recognise that the Kiribati people are coming to live and work in a similar environment.
“All our workers live with us and become part of our family. We hope this MOU will help with the revitalisation of our pearl farming industry.”
The association’s secretary, Rangi Mitaera Johnson, said the CIPFI was a prospect that farmers would embrace.
“It is an opportunity that the farmers welcome and look forward to. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done and we look forward to this new arrangement with the people of Kiribati,” she said.
Association executive Mehau Johnson, a pearl technician and farmer, said it the agreement was an answer to her prayers.
“It’s a very exciting time. I believe it’s going to be great for our industry having both governments work together.”
The MOU was negotiated and drafted over a four year period by the Ministry of Marine Resources’ Policy and Legal Division with assistance from the Crown Law Office and the Labour Division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
MMR secretary Ben Ponia said the ministry had a key role in supporting pearl production through adopting best farm management practices and monitoring lagoon environmental impacts.
“From our knowledge of the industry we think that Kiribati and Cook Islands can both benefit from the MOU.
“There are SCUBA divers on Christmas Island involved in the marine aquarium trade, and in past there was a direct shipping link to Kiribati through the MV Kawai that could facilitate the exchange of labour.
“Furthermore the I-Kiribati people are likely to integrate more easily into the atoll lifestyle and social practices of Manihiki and other potential pearl farming islands in the northern Cook Islands.”
The Manihiki Island Government will be responsible for coordinating relevant agencies in the implementation of the MOU. The island government is responsible for the overall management of the pearl industry and the issuing of pearl farming permits.
The MOU requires parties to comply with all relevant laws and provisions of employment contracts as well as respecting local culture and community lore and customs.
An MMR spokesperson said the memorandum outlines all employment requirements such as health checks, tax, and immigration and follows the standard process for employing foreign workers.
“The agreement also has specific measures to avoid unethical recruitment and employment practices or overstaying by workers.” - MMR