Labour Migration in Kiribati

Briefing note | 14 April 2015
Kiribati seafarers
Labour migration has been an important policy issue for Kiribati due to its long-standing role in addressing the lack of employment opportunities, promoting economic and social development, alleviating poverty, and adapting to climate change.

The 21 inhabited atolls, reef islands and a raised coral island (Banaba or Ocean Island) that comprise the Republic of Kiribati had a population of just over 103,000 in 2010 but faces important challenges in terms of creating job opportunities for the working age population.

The Government of Kiribati has indicated that it recognised that labour migration will become an increasingly important strategy for permanent migration and population control according to the government’s “Migration With Dignity” Policy , which articulates the importance of training i-Kiribati to take up skilled labour migration opportunities in response to climate change threats to livelihoods at home.

However, current labour migration options from Kiribati have been decreasing, at the same time as the population, and rates of unemployment are climbing. There is thus a degree of urgency to identify new migration opportunities. As acknowledged in Strategic Plan for the Ministry of Labour and Human Resource Development, the country’s labour force needs to be endowed with skills, qualifications and work ethic in order to facilitate migration.

The ILO (through the EU funded Pacific Climate Change and Migration Project) has been working with the Ministry of Labour and Human Resource Development, as well as social partners, to develop a national labour migration policy which brings a ‘whole of government’ approach to labour migration. The policy has been developed through ongoing stakeholder consultations and is expected to be presented to Cabinet in late 2015.

Some of the labour migration opportunities which i-Kiribati engage in include:
  • Seafaring has presented the best overseas employment opportunity for I-Kiribati, since independence, but has been impacted by the Global Financial Crisis. In June 2015, there were about 750 Kiribati seamen on board, compared to 1,452 in 2006. The recovery in world trade from the global crisis did not produce a corresponding recovery in seafarer employment for a number of structural reasons within the shipping industry, including a restructuring of the industry and lower demand for crew globally. However, the number of I-Kiribati seafarers does appear to be on the rise again.
  • The maritime and fisheries sector also offers employment opportunities for I-Kiribati. It is estimated that approximately 325 I-Kiribati crew are working on fishing vessels and between 100 to 200 on vessels of the Republic of Korea, Taiwan (China) and China.
  • Migration flows to New Zealand intensified partly as a result of a work permit scheme in New Zealand in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the introduction of the Pacific Access Category (PAC) Scheme in 2002. Under the PAC Scheme, up to 75 I-Kiribati are accepted to New Zealand every year for permanent settlement. Applicants need to secure a job offer from an employer in New Zealand (and meet other criteria) in order to receive a permit.
  • More recently, small numbers of workers from Kiribati have found seasonal employment opportunities on Australian farms under the Seasonal Work Programme (SWP) and on New Zealand farms under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme. However, Kiribati faces competition from larger PICs with better resourced Departments of Labour, better end to end processes and better and cheaper air linkages to Australia and New Zealand.