Friday, June 05, 2009

On Tonga and the Pacific islanders

Hello again!

Recently, I came across the Radio Australia report "Reassigned Tonga guest workers upset local balance". The article describes how Tonga guest-workers, while economically productive and satisfied with their own earnings, are unpopular among native-born residents of the region where they're working.

ADAMS: With harvest over, they begin pruning the almond trees. Wielding the chainsaws are Tonga men who are in Boundary Bend in Victoria on a 7-month temporary work visa.

FANGALOKA: Basically there is no work in Tonga. They don't starve. They are all big healthy boys but there is no... there's a lot of bartering. Most of the guys that have come over are subsistence farmers.

ADAMS: Alf Fangaloka's family migrated in the 1980's, looking for work. They run Tree Minders, employing the Tongans and Australians to manage the region's millions of almond trees. Mr Fangaloka says this pilot program is as much about alleviating labour shortages as it is about helping our Pacific neighbours.

FANGALOKA: Basically the average wage in Tonga would be about $AUD1.50 an hour. The GDP per capita is less than $1000 a year, so it is huge to what they earn here. During the harvest the boys were grossing $1200 to $1300 a week, so its a huge difference to them.

ADAMS: Piliu Kailahi - one of the oldest of the Tongans - smiles broadly as he reveals most of his wage is sent home.

PILIEU: The pay here is more than 8 or ten times the pay in Tonga, so we are so grateful.

ADAMS: All the men have families in Tonga - that's part of the requirement. Some have already put new rooves and extensions on their modest homes.

Emigration from the Pacific islands, especially from the islands of the Polynesia culture region in the South Pacific, is one of the major unsung movements of our time. Yes, the absolute numbers of migrants are relatively small, numberings in the tens of thousands, but relative to the population of these islands the number is huge. Low living standards and a connection to Anglophone countries, especially to New Zealand, has produced a huge diaspora. Smaller countries like Niue and Tokelau have several times as many co-ethnics living in New Zealand as in their homeland, while even in the larger nations like Tonga and Samoa emigration is a major phenomenon. Even now, New Zealand sets aside places in its immigration program for Pacific island migrants.

As I blogged back in 2004, Tongan emigration is a durable phenomenon, motivated by low standards of living, the ability to send vital remittances back to the homeland, cultural traditions of mobility, and a stagnant social and political environment. As Small and Dixon show in their 2004 Migration Information article, migration has radically changed this island nation.

The results of three decades of migration were apparent in the last Tongan census. Of Tonga's population of 97,784, almost seven of 10 Tongans now reside on the main island of Tongatapu, and practically one-quarter of the entire population lives in the capital, Nuku'alofa. Outer island areas are depopulating rapidly, leading to new government policies aimed at stemming the tide of internal population movement. Although recent population estimates suggest that migration overseas may be slowing, today half of the estimated 216,000 Tongans in the world are abroad, and almost every household has a relative resident in another country. About two in 10 of Tonga's expatriates are residents of Australia, while four out of every 10 overseas Tongans live in the US, and another four out of 10 live in New Zealand. The connections between migrants and their homeland have created a new global village of Tongans, with profound implications for their homeland.

[. . .]

Like many other Pacific island nations, Tonga has become a so-called MIRAB economy, that is, an economy dependent on migration, remittances, foreign aid, and government bureaucracy as its major sources of revenue. Despite efforts to diversify, Tonga has a limited export sector, consisting of agricultural exports including squash, fish, root crops, vanilla, and kava, and a fledging tourist industry. Since the 1960s, imports have exceeded exports, resulting in a consistent pattern of negative trade balances. In 2002, total imports to Tonga were more than six times its exports. Building materials, agricultural chemicals, fuel, and imported food (despite the fact that 65 percent of the work force is in agriculture) make up the bulk of imported items.

It is migration, along with the remittances of cash and goods from migrants who live and work overseas, that keeps the Tongan economy afloat. At the national level, remittances are the major source of foreign exchange and accounted in FY2002 for about 50 percent of GDP. At the village and household levels, remittances are an integral part of income and consumption. In addition to receiving shipping containers filled with appliances, clothing, toys, and building materials, villagers are regularly sent cash remittances from their relatives overseas. Seventy-five percent of all Tongan households report receiving remittances from overseas, making remittances the single most widespread source of income in Tonga. Remittances also comprise a sizable proportion of total household income, second only nationally to "wages and salaries" as the largest income source. At a national level, reported remittances—and there is ample evidence that much more is received than formally reported—comprise 22 percent of income derived from all cash sources, including wages, salaries, and sales of produce. In some villages, remittances account for as much as 50 percent of all household income.

As they go on to note, as doors for Tonga emigrants close and their remittances dry up, challenges to the Tonga monarchy and its monopoly on political power have grown. Where it will end up, nobody can say for certain. What can be said is that globalization in the form of migration has certain hit this supposedly idyllic South Pacific monarchy.


Aslak said...

Thanks for bringing this story to our attention, it is not something you hear a lot about if you don't live in the region.It really is fascinating to see the relative scale of the migration here. It's hard to think of any equivalent elsewhere, maybe Moldova and some Caribbean islands come close.

Charly said...

It maybe hard to find examples like this on a country level but finding the equivalent of this on a regional level isn't hard at all.

Aslak said...

That's certainly true. I'm actually from one of those regions (rural Northern Norway) originally. However, when there's domestic migration there's no loss to the state, which can then compensate regions that are depopulating. With international migration, you have to depend on remittances. The question is whether remittances can really compensate for the brain-drain

Charly said...

I think you are overestimating the gains from the central government and underestimating the cost of being part of a large state.
If Rural Northern Norway would be independent the absolute income would be much lower but the relative income wouldn´t be that much lower

Aslak said...

Well, I think the cost/benefit analysis here will largely depend on the nature of the state. Norway has, I think, mostly been good to its periphery whereas in many countries, such areas are mostly neglected. But at least there is a potential for rebalancing when the migration occurs within one state.
I'm not sure what you mean with regards to relative income -relative to where/who?