FHTA Tourism Talanoa: On the Horns of a Dilemma

Fijian Tourism Expo

Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association, 07 March 2024 – Happy International Women’s Day to one and all.

In the wise words of poet and author Maya Angelou, “You may encounter many defeats, but YOU must not be defeated.”

This sentiment also resonates as we witness the ongoing worker exodus, depleting our local workforce and contemplate our options as employers, industries and as an economy.

Skilled and unskilled workers are seeking opportunities abroad, leaving notable vacancies in Fiji’s job market, particularly in vital sectors like tourism and construction, while we’ll wager the rapidly emerging BPO sector will hit a brick wall in its expansion efforts, if it has not already.

Last Saturday’s papers advertised around 200 vacant positions – more, if you add employers seeking entire teams and groups of graduate trainees. This trend raises concerns about unemployment rates and prompts employers to seek solutions to fill critical roles within the country and from outside it.

The issue of unemployment is not a new phenomenon in the Pacific but has evolved over time to reflect broader socioeconomic trends.

Policy decisions in Australia and New Zealand to increase recruiting efforts in response to their post-COVID economic demands and the ensuing eagerness of Pacific Islands to accept the resulting exodus and increased remittances as short term solutions to unemployment, poverty support and even economic stability have led to the lethargic responses to the private sector’s calls for more multi-dimensional resolutions.

But as public sector offices get quieter with nurses, teachers and civil servants joining this exodus impact the Government and its agencies’ efficiencies, we’re hearing that they’re feeling the private sector pain more acutely, with less resources and autonomy to address this immediately.

Historically, Fiji has grappled with fluctuating unemployment rates, influenced by factors such as global economic conditions, domestic policy initiatives, and demographic shifts.

Understanding the historical context is crucial for contextualizing the current state of unemployment and informing potential solutions moving forward.

While these schemes were initially devised to offer our workers opportunities for employment overseas, the repercussions continue to reverberate within our labour market.

But this was to be expected when the discussions were first struck up by the relevant stakeholders and murmurs of a ‘greener pasture’ spread amongst the populace.

While the tourism industry has been hit hard, we are wondering where Fiji’s unemployed citizens are.

Obviously there are gaps within the market after the departures of workers overseas but there hasn’t been a rush to fill these gaps by those who are seeking employment.

Unless of course our data on unemployment figures is outdated.

Two or three times a year, our tertiary institutions hand over qualifications to graduating students and these potential workers enter the market.

But do they, though?

Stakeholders across industries have emphasized the necessity of having accurate and up-to-date information to formulate effective policies, address labour shortages, and steer the nation’s economy toward sustainable growth.

Government’s research body, the Fiji Bureau of Statistics serves as a vital source of information regarding various socio-economic indicators, including employment and unemployment rates.

However, the most recent data available from the bureau dates back to 2019.

This dataset, derived from the Annual Employment Survey, provides insights into the employment landscape as of June 2019.

At that time, the survey indicated a total estimated number of paid employments in registered establishments, shedding light on the distribution between wage earners and salary earners.

Despite its relevance at the time of publication, the absence of more current data presents a significant challenge for stakeholders seeking to understand and address the evolving dynamics of Fiji’s labour market. Especially with the fallout from the pandemic impacting labour demand around the world.

Delving into an analysis of Fiji’s unemployment rate reveals a pattern of fluctuations over the years.

By examining data from 2018 to 2022, it is evident that Fiji’s labour market has experienced varying degrees of stability and volatility.

As of 2022, it stands at 4.33%, which is a 0.6% decline from the previous year. We wonder how this compares to data from FNPF using current and past data for workers in the system, and even on graduating student numbers from tertiary institutions.

The calculated estimation is based on the trends of previous years before 2019 and we know the changed trends post-pandemic have now quite significantly altered the demand and supply dynamics for most supply chains.

The reported unemployment rates provided presents a seemingly stable or declining trend, yet the on-the-ground experience and reality paints a starkly different picture.

By comparing Fiji’s rates with those of neighbouring countries like New Zealand, Australia, and Pacific Island nations, we can contextualize Fiji’s labour market dynamics and identify potential areas for improvement or intervention.

Factors such as the exodus of workers to overseas opportunities, mismatched skill sets, and demographic shifts contribute to the persistent labour shortages in tourism related occupations and we have no doubt, in other industries as well.

This disparity begs the question: Why does the reported data not align with the observed shortage of workers in various sectors? It is evident that there are discrepancies between the official figures and the actual employment landscape.

And is perhaps why the critical nature of the challenge is not getting the required attention it deserves.

While we are generally aware of the outward movement of workers into formal labour mobility schemes; less awareness and discussion exists for the informal outward movement of workers especially responding to direct overseas employment advertisements, lucrative work in the US and Australia for aged care, the high demand for brides from Fiji in return for permanent residency and the larger number of people who are choosing to migrate because they can.

Areas we continue to pretend are not equal challenges.

Considering the evident gaps between reported and observed unemployment rates, we question the effectiveness of government surveys and data collection methods in accurately capturing employment statistics, rather than the standard response to employers that “we’re looking into it”.

Moreover, do these surveys adequately capture informal employment opportunities and underemployment prevalent in many developing economies, considering that this data could provide very significant baselines for Fiji’s economic development plans?

To grow the economy, we need more investments, whether new or expansionary.

To get those investments going we will need workers to get construction moving, to be ready for the demand for better infrastructure and supply networks like communication, IT, food, energy, water and waste management.

To get those investments construction ready, we need workers in Government agencies to process applications, inspect, monitor, collect taxes or fees and approve documents, schemes, work permits and plans.

We need maintenance workers and electricians and technicians that can fix or expand our tired hospitals and health services, and once this has been done, we will need the doctors and nurses and lab technicians to fill those spaces.

We need our children to have access to sufficient and quality teachers and lecturers that would start when we can eventually reduce our classroom sizes.

And we need more farmers to plant more fresh produce to increase current supplies for export, domestic and commercial use and reduce our high reliance on imports.

Tourism’s (and other affected industries) inability to fill crucial positions within tourism establishments can result in missed business opportunities, reduced revenue, and potential closures or downsizing of businesses.

It will certainly curtail expansion and slow down investments.

This not only affects the individual establishments but also has ripple effects on the broader tourism ecosystem, including tour operators, transportation providers, and local suppliers.

Concerned industries are collaborating with tertiary institutes to tailor educational programs and meet changing demand to ensure a steady pipeline of skilled graduates entering the workforce.

Internship programs, apprenticeships, and industry placements can provide students with valuable hands-on experience and facilitate seamless transitions into employment upon graduation.

But these and the increased in-house training programs taking place are not the longterm solutions needed.

First, we must admit we have a problem. And work together for better, long-term and Fiji-specific solutions.
Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 07 March 2024)