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No immediate fix for local labour shortage

Monday 10 January 2022 | Written by Alana Musselle | Published in Economy, National


No immediate fix for local labour shortage
Villi’s Burger Joint in Matavera. Image/ VILIS FACEBOOK

A growing number of expat workers taking up jobs in New Zealand is deepening the local labour shortage crisis, forcing at least one business to close up shop days before the Cook Islands border reopens to Kiwi holidaymakers.

A survey issued by the Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce, Cook Island Tourism Corporation and the Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council has revealed at least 300 people are needed to ease labour shortages in the tourism industry and related sectors by the time the borders reopen to New Zealand this Thursday.

According to Liana Scott, the president of Tourism Industry Council, at least 300 people are needed to “immediately” fill positions. 

These positions have been left vacant by the growing number of local and lately, expat workers, heading to New Zealand to take up better and higher paid jobs.

As of December 24, 2021, 34 Fijian workers, 11 Indonesians, five Indians, and 38 workers from the Philippines have departed the island since August 17, 2021.

Principal immigration officer Kairangi Samuela on December 24 said: “There has also been an increasing departure of Philippines nationals out of the country in the last few weeks.”

Between December 2 and December 23, 17 Philippines nationals departed the Cook Islands for New Zealand. Some other expat workers from Philippines followed suit in the last two flights.

Vili, owner of Vili’s Burger Joint and Vili’s Golden Wok, started with 20 employees at the beginning of this year and is now down to seven. This has led to the closure of one of his takeaways.

He expressed his concern and frustration that his two businesses are about to go under due to the labour shortage situation.

Currently, his main frustrations lie in his experience with the contradicting policies of Labour (Ministry of Internal Affairs) and Immigration.

According to some of his staff, the Cook Islands Immigration’s policy states that workers need one month’s notice of resignation only if there has been misconduct, while the Employment Relations Act states seven days’ notice period and no reason for leave is required. Some of his (former) staff who have taken up jobs in NZ have used these claims as their reason for leaving.

“I have gone to Immigration and they have done nothing. Labour doesn’t care about what I have to say either. Where do I go now?” Vili said.

“I’m angry. I’ve paid all these taxes only for these people to run back overseas and now have no workers, nobody.”

He said that the opening of the borders and loose policies regarding labourers leaving isn’t helping the situation.

“Right now, the main thing I am facing is injustice to the business owner. The best thing I can do is to not let these people beat me but to keep going forward. I can still make a stance to still be the person I was before this all started.”

Immigration’s Samuela said: “We have no role in the recruitment of workers by New Zealand firms. Nor can we stop locals advertising for workers on behalf of New Zealand firms.”

“We cannot by law (Immigration or Employment Relations Act) force anyone to stay in the country if they have not broken any laws. We would be depriving persons of their freedom of movement across International borders should we prevent their departure from the Cook Islands.

“These are difficult and unprecedented times for everyone with regards to International Border Closures for the last two years, and traditional modes of bringing workers into the Cook Islands have changed. Government is committed to supporting all employers and employees throughout this time.”

Tourism Industry Council’s Scott, who runs the Muri Beach Club Resort, said a proposal was made to the government to bring workers to the Cook Islands from other countries such as Fiji.

Jaewynn McKay, spokesperson for the Prime Minister, said: “Government is well aware of the labour shortage and has had more than several conversations with the private sector including the Private Sector Task Force (PSTF).”

“Work has commenced on addressing the labour shortage from a holistic perspective including school leavers, existing local and migrant workers and consideration of sourcing labour from our Pacific neighbors to fill the skills and labour gaps in the tourism and related sectors.”

Government has welcomed a survey undertaken by PSTF to confirm figures versus anecdotal evidence. This piece of work remains a work in progress.

McKay acknowledged that the labour shortage is indeed an urgent issue, but their ability and capacity to have something in place before the Thursday border reopening remains uncertain.