Labour Migration in Nauru

Immigration rather than emigration has played an important part of Nauru’s history, but this has changed as a result of descreasing phosphate mining, and outgoing labour migration may become a more pressing policy priority.

Project documentation | 14 April 2015
The Republic of Nauru comprises a single raised coral island that is 21 km2 in area with a resident population of 10,084 at the time of the Census of Population and Housing in 2011 (Bureau of Statistics, 2013). Nauru has the highest average population density (498 persons per km2) of any Pacific country, ahead of Tuvalu where there is a slightly larger population and a land area of 26 km2 spread over nine atolls and reef islands. Nauru is unusual in the Pacific in having a population that is almost entirely urban-resident, with a very small proportion of households (13 per cent) growing food for local consumption and only 10 per cent of the labour force engaged in primary production (agriculture, forestry and mining).

Nauru had been a significant country of immigration for much of the 20th century because of its phosphate industry, but when the major reserves of phosphate were exhausted in the late 1990s the non-Nauruan labour force (and their dependents) was reduced dramatically. For much of the post-Second World War period non-Nauruans outnumbered Nauruans, with I-Kiribati, Tuvaluan and Chinese workers comprising the bulk of the phosphate mining labour force. At the time of the 2002 Census of Population and Housing, soon after major exports of phosphate ceased, there were 2,493 people resident on Nauru who were not Nauruan by nationality including 1,259 i-Kiribati, 423 Tuvaluans and 491 Chinese.

The decline of mining and subsequent economic crisis led to some Nauruan emigration. There was an average annual net loss of 218 people in the inter-censal period 1992-2002, of which half were indigenous Nauruans. In 2007 it was estimated that between 50 and 100 Nauruans had recently moved overseas for work, mostly to Australia and Fiji. These were mainly educated and skilled workers best able to meet the skills and points criteria for immigration overseas. Recently, economic growth has stemmed the outward flow, without increasing volumes of overseas labour In recent years a growing number of workers from the Pacific island countries have been able to participate in temporary work schemes offered by New Zealand and Australia. Nauru sends relatively small numbers of workers (predicted to be around 50 in the 2015-16 financial year). However, with the increasing impacts of climate change, and an unpredictable future on employment opportunities, there is greater emphasis on ensuring that Nauruans have the skills, qualifications and knowledge to take advantage of future labour migration opportunities.

The ILO (through the Pacific Climate Change and Migration Project) has been working with the Nauru Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as well as other stakeholders, to develop an evidence based approach to job creation and labour migration, including through the development of a Situational Analysis of Employment.

Current opportunities for labour migration in Nauru include the Recognized Seasonal Employer (New Zealand) and the Seasonal Worker Program (Australia).