The Labour market in Papua New Guinea is only a small fraction of the total population, most of whom are self-employed or maintaining a subsistence lifestyle. However, this relatively small number of people is an important part of the development process.
The labour force is defined as ‘A ll Papua New Guineans who are currently employed at going rates of pay, as well as those who are currently unemployed but actively seeking work’. Twenty years after Independence it is said to stand at 250,000. The usual allowances must be made for the quality of the statistics in PNG at the present time. It is always being said that 20% of the population of 4 million are in the cash economy. This amounts to 800,000 people. Assuming that some of these are self-employed, say 100,000, which is probably a low estimate, this seems to mean that every employed person has only 1.8 dependent family members. This could be too low a figure as family sizes are large. Therefore possibly the numbers employed are even fewer than 250,000.
We can approach the available data from other sources. The Employers Federation (q.v.) believes that its members, constituting one-third of the private sector, employ a total of 45,000 people. indicating a total for the private sector of 135,000. The Government, in one form or another, employs 60,000. This gives a total of 195,000. The Government has targeted a 4,000 cut in its numbers, which will bring the numbers down to 191,000.
Whatever the exact size of the labour force, the men and women within it are the backbone of the country’s move towards industrialisation and their welfare is the legitimate concern of the old Ministry of Labour and Employment, now renamed the Ministry of Industrial Relations. The problems that face the labour force are; insufficient jobs, insufficient training for those jobs and insufficient pay to keep yourself and others when you do get a job.
There are also specific problems related to the conditions of work in various different places, especially as more specialised kinds of work develop. Each really needs health and safety audits and inspections. In recent years the Department of Labour has not been able to establish or maintain these.
Problems in the labour market (which often derive from problems in the wider economic situation) eventually surface as strained industrial relations. One of the main functions of the Ministry is to keep relations harmonious by helping settle disputes quickly. To this end the Department of Industrial Relations includes a conciliation service.
The protection of local workers from foreign competition is the other main task of the Department. They deal with it by framing legislation. For example, nearly 600 types of job are in a category known as prohibited occupations, for which work permits are not issued to foreigners.
While these are the traditional concerns of any Labour Department, the incoming Minister for Industrial Relations, Samson Napo, MP for Bulolo, is keen to look beyond the problems of the local labour market. He wants to liaise with international employers, actual and potential, whom he hopes will do more for their employees in the future, especially in relation to training.
There is already a work-permit related training scheme which aims to make the training of local counterparts a condition of acquiring the permit. Samson would like to see this scheme strengthened.
Samson is also anxious about the low levels of wages that are being paid in PNG’s increasingly deregulated labour market. Echoing the concerns of the TUC on this issue, he says that some of these, especially those for unskilled labour, are simply unjust and must be looked at.
There is no dole or welfare system in Papua New Guinea and workers who lose their jobs have to rely on their ‘wantoks’, friends and relatives, or go back to a subsistence life-style. This is not likely to change. However, the seeming ‘buyers market’ for labour that this implies is no reason for inaction. The role for the Department of Labour in this situation, says Samson, must be to support every initiative that will strengthen the capacity of the individual worker to contribute their labour in an effective manner, and to obtain full recompense for it.