A better future for Nauru


Massey University research is helping to create a brighter employment future and better economic prospects for Nauru and other South Pacific nations.

Think Nauru, and phosphate or refugees are most likely to come to mind. Last century, mining of the mineral was the major industry on the tiny Pacific island. Today, the largest private employer is the Australian-funded Regional Processing Centre (RPC) for refugees and asylum seekers.

The over-mining of phosphate and lack of employment diversity pose significant challenges for Nauru. A report by Massey University Professors Jim Arrowsmith and Jane Parker for the International Labour Organization (ILO) explored prospects for employment in the event of the RPC being scaled back or closed.

The report, Situational Analysis of Employment in Nauru, found the Nauru economy is at high medium-term risk, due to reliance on the politically contingent RPC and aid donors for revenue and employment. Many of the options available to other Pacific Island countries, such as tourism and food processing, are available to Nauru only as niche industries because of its size, isolation and competition from established operations.

Professors Arrowsmith and Parker recommended the formation of a national employment policy to prioritise, coordinate and evaluate employment-generation initiatives; expanded technical and vocational education and training; and continued investment in energy, water and transport infrastructure and land rehabilitation.

Appetite for investment

Professor Jane Parker and Professor Jim ArrowsmithThe professors’ research found Nauru, which has a population of just over 10,000, suffers from insufficient investment in human capital. “In the boom years unemployment was an option for many Nauruans, and the benefits of education and a work ethic were devalued,” the report says. They found the RPC must provide quality work and a legacy of skills and qualifications for employees.

Professor Arrowsmith made two week-long research trips to Nauru, and found the appetite for investment in human capital was “evident everywhere”. “The challenge is to leverage not just aid support but also the Australian refugee centre project into a positive legacy of education, training and support for small business,” he says.

The ILO is a United Nations body which develops policies and programmes to promote decent labour standards for all men and women. Professors Parker and Arrowsmith have been funded by the ILO to conduct eight research projects across the South Pacific in the past five years on employment generation and regulation, winning the work by tender and combining desk research with primary interviews and focus groups.

“New Zealand and Australia are implicitly intertwined with Pacific Island history so we are researching something close to home,” Professor Parker says. “Given the issues some of the countries face, it is important suggestions are made for improvements and development so the countries can resonate as thriving, independent states.”

Their first work for the ILO was the 2011 report Comparative Study on Social Dialogue and Gender Equality in New Zealand, Australia and Fiji. With four other researchers, Professors Parker and Arrowsmith demonstrated that gender equality at work and social dialogue are mutually beneficial, and that their promotion should go hand in hand.

The report found that for sustained change to occur in gender relations at work, as well as truly meet international standards, New Zealand, Australia and Fiji’s legislative and policy frameworks need to more actively encourage, rather than “permit”, gender equality initiatives at workplace, sectoral and tripartite levels.

They recommended an integrated approach to legislative, policy and workplace/human resource management policy development in each country, which is encouraged by social dialogue at multiple levels and across sectors to progress gender equality aims. A holistic approach is more likely to encourage “more robust progress that is less prone to buffeting by changes in government and economic conditions”.

Our projects in PNG have helped establish a Child Labour Unit, worked towards an employment policy strategy and improved arrangements for overseas seasonal work, and that is very rewarding.


In 2013, Professors Parker and Arrowsmith developed a national action plan on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour in Papua New Guinea and a strategy to establish a Child Labour Unit.

“We want to do world-class research that is meaningful and impactful,” Professor Arrowsmith says. “Our projects in PNG have helped establish a Child Labour Unit, worked towards an employment policy strategy and improved arrangements for overseas seasonal work, and that is very rewarding.”

Professor Parker: “We are just two bit-players in the wider scheme of things, but it’s nice to be making a contribution in situations that can be quite desperate, to know there is some monitoring and recourse for imperilled individuals.”

Professors Arrowsmith and Parker have also written reports for the ILO on redundancy provisions, seasonal work schemes and employment policies generally, focusing on PNG and Tonga. For each report they drew on their cross-national empirical research backgrounds including with the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions and experience with policy development.

“There has been quite a dearth of information about employment generation and regulation in the Pacific,” Professor Parker says. “We try to be respectful of the local conditions and cultural mores rather than come in with an idea of what it should be like.”

Professor Arrowsmith says Tonga has no system of labour law outside the public sector. “Employers told me that they feared the costs of proposed employment rights, but many also argued that a regulated labour market might bring efficiency as well as equity by formalising employment relations.”

The comparative employment relationship researchers are institutional partners with the new Work and Economic Development Observatory, based at the Tahiti Business School, an important regional hub which will enable Pacific Island countries to be the designers and drivers of relevant workplace and wider research.

Project details

Funders International Labour Organization
Dates Ongoing since 2010