Story: Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce

Page 3. The rural workforce

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A rural people

Māori were a rural people until the Second World War. Until the 1900s, 95% of Māori lived in rural communities, and in the 1930s the Māori population was 90% rural.

The 1926 census recorded over 10,000 Māori working in primary production. The next-largest defined group was industrial, with less than 1,000 workers.

Around 7,000 workers were listed as labourers. They would mostly have been involved in rural occupations.

Introduction to farming

Initially, new crops, stock and methods of horticulture were adopted enthusiastically by Māori. Tribes supplied food to the settlers in the first towns. Individual Māori became farmers, though on a cooperative, communal basis. By the mid-1800s, tribes were building flour mills to process wheat. The 1840s to 1860s has been described as a golden age of Māori arable farming – but it was not to last.

Loss of land

In the South Island, the majority of land had passed out of Māori ownership by the 1860s. By the 1900s most tribes in the North Island had lost significant amounts of traditional land through sale or confiscation. Earlier tribes had farmed their own land, but as the best land moved into Pākehā ownership, Māori increasingly worked in contract roles.

Contract workers

Many Māori relied on seasonal work on Pākehā farms. From the late 1800s Māori formed shearing gangs known as kanataraki (contract), which were based on whānau or hapū ties. Much of the work on farms was labouring.

Additionally, work from the government such as road building, railway construction and bush clearance often went to local Māori communities as contracts.

Māori living in Māori communities still worked within a seasonal pattern. This made it difficult to take full-time outside work, as they needed to be available when required by their communities. After the Second World War, mechanisation of many aspects of farming made it less labour-intensive, so there was less work for local Māori communities.

Land development – from labourers to farmers

Until the 1930s Māori struggled to develop their land, as they were not eligible for farm assistance programmes. Apirana Ngata spearheaded land development schemes as native minister from the late 1920s. This helped to increase the number of Māori farmers.

The development work itself, funded by the government, was a significant source of work, employing 5,000 Māori by 1939.


Despite the improvements in Māori farming, there were a number of impediments to the outcomes being sought by Ngata and others – increasing population, too little land of too poor a quality, and complex land ownership structures.

Regional occupations

Some occupations were regional. The 1926 census counted 40 muttonbirders, all based in the South Island. In the early 2000s muttonbirding was still an important industry for the Rakiura (Stewart Island) people.

In 1926 there were 627 Māori involved in kauri-gum digging in the Far North. Because of the role of northern Māori in this industry, A Company of 28 (Maori) Battalion was known as ngā keri kāpia (the gumdiggers).

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce - The rural workforce', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 Mar 2010