Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said “out of every adversity there can be opportunity”.
We all know that Fiji faces a massive problem of labour migration, both skilled and unskilled to the extent that the PS Finance thinks that economic growth may be choked in the near future.
Many stakeholders are calling for easier access to Fiji’s labour markets for foreign labour.
The Ministry of Women and NGOs like Fiji Women’s Rights Movement are passionately calling for the economic empowerment of Fiji’s women and girls. They recently published and launched my Report for them: Beyond 33%: the economic empowerment of Fiji Women and Girls.
But do government ministries ever discuss their problems with each other for solution to mutual problems? Or do they work in their little cocoons, totally uninterested in the problems of other ministries and their key colleagues’ development strategies.
This is a general problem that the Ministry of Planning must try to get on top of at the national level through its next National Development Plan that they are in the process of formulating..
An interesting question is: have the policy makers (Ministers and senior civil servants in the Ministry of Labour AND the Ministry of Women read the FWRM Report and all its key findings and recommendations?
If they did, they would know that first, women are only 34% of the Paid Labour Force earn only 30% of total income, and hence own only 33 percent of financial assets like FNPF etc., not the 50% they should have for gender parity.
Second they would know that there are thousands of women not in the Labour Force (either full-time housewives or grossly underemployed family workers) who are extremely well qualified and could easily be drawn to fill many of the gaps in the labour force left by the departing emigrant workers.
Are the Ministry of Women Ministers and senior civil servants making a beeline for the doors of the Minister of Finance and PS Finance, to suggest how Government in its next budget can financially encourage these qualified women not in the Labour Force, to come into the Labour Force?
Indeed are employers (whether in the public or private sector) doing anything concrete to encourage qualified women with young children to become their employees, while also having their young children looked after? Or are they all waiting for government solutions?
The labour emigration
Readers do not have to be reminded about the huge national uproar about the massive rates of emigration of the Fiji labour force, some 50,000 in 18 months, quite an unprecedented rate.
A large part of it is because of the opening u p of Australian and NZ labour markets with incomes which are more than four times that of Fiji, which Fiji employers have no hope of matching, even if they were inclined towards it (which none are).
Some of the emigration is due to the 1987 and 2000 coups (mostly Indo-Fijians, Chinese and other non-indigenous races) but the 2066 coup also accelerated the outflow of indigenous Fijians.
Many employers, instead of offering higher wages or asking what they can do positively to retain their workers, are taking the easy option and demanding that Fiji facilitate the import of foreign workers.
Fiji’s employers are not at all concerned that this could open yet another Pandora’s Box of migrant worker for the future, as if we do not have enough racial strife in Fiji already. We note that Fiji’s indigenous Fijian political leaders have just got around to appreciate the girmitiya foreign workers.
I suggest that there needs to be a multi-pronged approach to labour emigration, with one being a range of measures to encourage more women, both skilled and unskilled, to join the labour force.
This would give some substance to the perpetual calls by salusalu-clad Ministers and foreign donor organizations for the empowerment of women and girls, but usually devoid of any concrete measures.
Not only does Government need to put its money where its mouth is, but also donor organizations who are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into women empowerment programs.
I draw on some of the statistics that I have derived from Employment and Unemployment Surveys carried out by our national treasure, the Fiji Bureau of Statistics, some in my FWRM Report.
The gender deficit in the Labour Force
While their share of the Labour Force has been slowly rising over the years, Females were unfortunately only 34% of the Labour Force while Males were 66% (Graph), they only earn 30% of Total Incomes in Fiji, and only 35% of FNPF balances. They are nowhere near the 50% parity they should have.
In 2015-16, some 47% of Paid Women Workers were earning below the poverty line, compared to a lower 30% of male Paid Workers.
Females are therefore disadvantage both because of their lower numbers in the Paid Labour Force and the relatively lower income.
In contrast, Females were 98% of Unpaid Full-Time Household Workers, commonly referred to as “housewives”, who numbered a massive 120 thousand, compared to only 2000 male housewives.
Numbers and Value of the More Qualified Housewives
What is quite extraordinary are the large numbers of the 120,000 female housewives are quite highly qualified housewives as given by the Table 11.3 in my FWRM Report.
There are some 55 thousand housewives who have higher education qualifications:
1,132 with degrees
9,160 with Certificates/Diplomas
45,172 with Senior Secondary qualifications.
Surely large numbers of these qualified housewives can be drawn upon to fill the gaps left by emigrating workers?
How pay for this?
Readers should look at the average incomes in Columns 3 of the table: $9372 for those with Senior Secondary; $13,961 with Certificates and Diplomas; and $25,210 with degrees and PG Degrees.
If large numbers of these qualified housewives joined the paid Labour Force, they could with some government assistance, pay for child care for their infants, either at their own homes or day care facilities.
The last column gives the total potential income which these housewives could be earning if they were employed in the cash economy at the average level which their education qualifications would earn them.
The Total amounts to a massive $580 million or more than three times that earned by the sugar industry which receives tens of millions of dollars of subsidy from tax payers.
Of course, these working housewives would also be paying taxes and making their annual contributions to the FNPF.
Thre would also be a large increase in employment in the day care centres or child carers in private homes also earning some income (however low), paying taxes and FNPF contributions.
Why should the Fiji Government not subsidise such as scheme that would generate such a high increase in total income and GDP of the country giving it a boost in tax revenues, and giving FNPF an addition 18% of that total sum? While at least reducing some of the problems posed by the emigrating workers?
I remind that in developed countries like Australia, working parents can take even their children as young as 1 to 4 years to “day care” facilities, with fees subsidised by the state.
I remind that the numbers of qualified women not in paid work is even larger than this because there are many categories of workers who are supposed to be in the paid labour force but “underemployed”, working less than 10 hours per week for pay. They subsequently do more than 35 hours of unpaid household work and are full time “housewives” in all but name.
If these women do move into the paid labour force, they would be pushing their current percentage up from 33% towards the ideal of 50%, closer to full economic empowerment of Fiji women (with income equalisation still another goal).
What of the private sector?
It is generally known that there are progressive employers like Mark and Sue Halabe who provide child care facilities at their factories, so that working mothers are comfortable that their children are being looked after. Why are other employers not doing the same?
Why indeed is Government not giving tax incentives for large employers to provide child care facilities on a shared cost basis with their employees so that more mothers can be encouraged to go into full-time paid employment?
Or even the setting up of day care facilities in large urban centres where the women would tend to be employed?
Who will push these as solutions?
What I am calling for here is that the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Women work together to solve the problem of emigrating workers, and the simultaneous objective of economically empowering women.
The Ministry of Women staff and their Minister need to read the FWRM Report from back to front to absorb the lessons there.
The Ministry of Labour (Minister and staff) also need to do that given that women are also part of the Labour Force and can potentially be a greater part.
Who should encourage this? I suggest that the Ministry of Planning look at this one of the over-arching projects as part of the National Development Plan they are formulating.
They, together with the Reserve Bank of Fiji, can also point out that one large part of the massive boom in foreign reserves is due to the savings of emigrating workers being sent home. Without these remittances which amount to more than $1 billion now, the Fiji balance of payments would be in dire straits and the Fiji dollar might even have to be devalued.
But co-ordination between ministries is not going to happen by itself. For the Ministers and Assistant Ministers also, such low profile work is not as attractive as attending grand meetings and giving grand speeches, media photo shoots with salusalu and frequent travel abroad to very verify grand international conventions thought up by international bureaucrats earning huge tax-free salaries, with little direct relevance for Fiji.
I am sure there are many other such development problems which also require inter-ministry co-operation that has not been taking place for 16 years, with all decisions previously being made by one Superman.
Ultimately, of course, the attempted solution(s) must go up to Cabinet and the Prime Minister who then has to bring together (or bang together) some Ministers’ heads to encourage them to co-operate. Will that happen?
Your guess is good as mine.
- PROF WADAN NARSEY is one of the region’s senior economists and a regular commentator on political and economic issues in Fiji. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of The Fiji Times.