Fears Māori unemployment rates will surge after lockdown lifts

7:53 pm on 15 April 2020

Māori leaders fear their people will suffer higher than average rates of unemployment after the level four lockdown lifts.

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Federation of Māori authorities chair Traci Houpapa. Photo: RNZ/Susan Murray

Māori unemployment is currently 8.4 percent - double that of the national average - which has some fearing that disparity will worsen if the country's unemployment rate reaches 13 percent, under Treasury's best case scenario.

The worse cast scenario of an overall unemployment rate of 26 percent - as predicted by Treasury if the country stays in lockdown for 6 months - is unacceptable for Māori, Federation of Māori authorities chair Traci Houpapa said.

She said that it was critical that primary industries could get up and running again, even before the end of the level four lockdown to avoid this level of unemployment.

"We've already seen forestry being hit and for our Māori enterprise owners and teams - harvesters and contractors, that's been huge, we just need to look at Tairāwhiti or the Far North for that."

"We need to start thinking about those definitions for essential businesses and how can we do slow starts now, how can we get the forestry industry up and running again," Houpapa said.

She wants the government to form an expert advisory panel of iwi business leaders to help transition the economy from level four lockdown.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at the Wednesday press conference "that's exactly the kind of thing we can and should be doing."

Without a government working group, the head of the Māori Council Matthew Tukaki feared that Māori unemployment could reach above 30 percent.

"Maori small business must have a seat at the table if we are going to arrest Māori unemployment rates hitting more than 30 percent - we cannot sit or stand by and wait for lockdown to end before a specific and targeted plan is in play."

But the Māori sector leader for the accounting firm BDO, Khylee Potae, said that historic disparties don't apply in this unprecented economic situation, and Māori unemployment might not be as "dire" as some people are predicting.

She said this was because a high number of Māori are employed in essential services.

"Most of the industries that are still working as essential services are large employers of Māori so I am mindful of not applying the historic generalisation over what is going to happen going forward, things are very different."

"I'm more curious about how this will play out for Māori given the types of labour force that we have and the fact that in the horticulture industry we're quite highly employed there, within heath, caregiving and food production - so I'm cautious on applying an old way of thinking in this new paradigm where things are not like they used to be."

Iwi economy expected to recover

The chair of Ngāti Porou Holding Group and Eastland Group Matanuku Mahuika said the iwi economy was safe as their businesses did not have a lot of debt.

"They're geared for the long-term and therefore they'll be able to ride out this current economic shock and over time, I'm sure recover."

"There'll be some pain as there is in other sectors of the economy [but] a lot of investment in primary industries and conservative balance sheets means that they will ride this out."

He said those strong balance sheets would be important in the months and years to come as Māori weather the economic consequences of Covid-19 and call upon their iwi for financial support.

Houpapa agreed that iwi and Māori authorities were likely to weather this storm.

She said that some iwi will be unable to provide a return to those shareholders this year.

"It's a challenging time to be leading organisations for Māori, for tribes, for iwi and we need to think really hard about the type of economy we want to step into and that's a conversation that government, Māori and iwi need to be having right now."

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