Story: Te Māori i te ohanga – Māori in the economy

Page 6. Urbanisation

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Rural workforce

Māori were a rural people right up until the Second World War. Up until the 1900s, 95% of Māori lived in rural communities. In the 1926 census more than 10,000 Māori worked in primary production. Additional to this were the 7,000 labourers, mostly involved in rural occupations. Until the middle of the 20th century, the Māori workforce was a rural workforce.


At the beginning of the 20th century a small but important group of Māori professionals emerged. This group, led by Apirana Ngata, were mostly graduates of Te Aute College.

Despite this promising start Māori educational development was hindered. There was a view held by a number of officials that Māori should only be taught manual skills. The Department of Education pressured Te Aute College to move its focus from academic achievement to agricultural training. In 1931 T. B. Strong, director of education, argued that Māori schools should train Māori boys to be farmers, and Māori girls to be farmers’ wives.

Limited education meant few Māori professionals worked in towns and cities. There were small clusters of Māori in certain professions such as nursing, the clergy and teaching. In 1945 there were a handful of managers, a single Māori lawyer, two law clerks (male and female), four doctors and two dentists.

Second World War

During the 1930s, only 10% of the Māori population was urban. Within a few decades the number would rise to over 80%. This massive shift was sparked by the Second World War. The Manpower Act 1944 was used to direct young Māori ineligible for the military to work in essential industries, often located in cities. Young Māori women moved to work in factories in towns. The NativeAffairs Department appointed six Māori welfare officers to assist young women away from home. The 1945 census noted that the increase in the number of Māori in manufacturing was due to the war.

Rural to urban movement

After the war some members of the Māori Battalion moved to the cities to take advantage of skills learned in the army. They generally found employment in the Māori Affairs Department or in teaching.

Limited education meant that Māori in both rural and urban areas found employment in areas such as freezing works, road maintenance, factories, transport, building trades, fishing, forestry, mining and labouring occupations.

Changing industries

Within a few decades the high proportion of Māori employed in agriculture changed significantly. In 1951 nearly 40% of Māori males were involved in agriculture, forestry, hunting and fishing compared to around 20% of European males. By 1971 the percentage of Māori engaged in agriculture was around 13%, little different from non-Māori at nearly 12%.

There was a big increase in the number of Māori employed in manufacturing. In 1936 around 2,000 Māori males and less than 100 Māori females were involved in manufacturing. By 1971 a third of Māori workers were involved in manufacturing.

In 1951 over half of Māori women worked in services. By 1971 it was down to a quarter.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te Māori i te ohanga – Māori in the economy - Urbanisation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 Mar 2010