Story: Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce

Traditional Māori work was a seasonal round of activities, done on a whānau or hapū basis. Later, Māori worked as contract labourers and in shearing gangs for Pākehā farmers. In the 2000s a growing number of Māori were in professional positions.

Story by Basil Keane
Main image: Nurse Erina Heremaia with mother and twins

Story summary

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Traditional Māori workforce

Traditionally Māori worked within their whānau (family) or hapū (subtribe). Activities such as planting, harvesting, hunting birds, fishing and eeling were seasonal. Some tasks, such as rat trapping, canoe building and warfare were largely done by men; weaving was done by women. Tohunga were specialists in areas such as carving, tattooing, building and spiritual matters.

European arrival

After Europeans arrived, Māori traded goods for items such as guns. Māori provided goods that Europeans wanted, such as kauri timber for ships’ masts, and large amounts of flax for making rope. They also grew potatoes for trading.

Early in the 1800s Māori men began working on whaling ships.

Rural workforce

In the mid-1800s Māori grew wheat and built flour mills to process it. But later, tribes lost much of their land. Māori had to work as labourers for Pākehā farmers, or on government contracts building roads or railways, or clearing forest. Some whānau or hapū groups formed shearing gangs.

From the late 1920s Apirana Ngata set up schemes to help Māori develop and farm their land.

Moving to the city

After the Second World War increasing numbers of Māori moved to the city. Many worked in factories, and in hospitals, hotels and boarding houses.

Māori professionals

Early Māori professionals included Apirana Ngata (a lawyer) and Peter Buck and Māui Pōmare (both doctors), all of whom had attended Te Aute College. However, through the 20th century there were few Māori professionals, and most were in teaching, nursing and the clergy.

In the early 2000s more Māori had higher education and worked in professional jobs.

Restructuring and unemployment

During economic restructuring in the 1980s many Māori lost their jobs as freezing works closed and government industries like forestry, railways and the Post Office were cut back. The Māori unemployment rate was more than twice as high as that of non-Māori.


In the 2000s there were larger numbers of self-employed Māori – but Māori were still less likely to be self-employed than Pākehā.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 March 2010