Story: Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce

Page 4. Urbanisation

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Māori moved to the city, but their patterns of urbanisation and work distribution was different from those of Pākehā workers.


Before the Second World War, Māori were overwhelmingly rural workers. Gradually, in the later 20th century, agriculture became less important.

In 1951 the numbers were still high – 38% of Māori males worked in agriculture, forestry, hunting and fishing, compared to 21% of European males. Between 1951 and 1971 Māori men involved in the rural industries fell from 38% of the Māori workforce to 16.3%.

In 1936 almost all Māori women (except those working in the home) worked in primary production. This dropped to 14% by 1951 and to 3% by 1971.

In 1971 there was little difference between the proportions of Māori and Pākehā working in agriculture (Māori 13%, non-Māori 11%), probably because the urban–rural distribution of Māori and non-Māori was very similar by then.


In the 1930s and 1940s there was a marked increase of Māori working in industrial areas, from 2,039 Māori males in 1936 to 4,365 in 1945. Māori females in industrial areas increased from 79 to 487 over the same period – probably because of the shortage of male workers in industry during the Second World War.

By 1951 workers in manufacturing included 6,044 Māori males (23% of Māori men) and 1,482 females (22% of Māori women) – a similar percentage to non-Māori. By 1971 more than a third of all Māori – both men and women – were engaged in manufacturing.


Another area where Māori women worked in significant numbers was in services. In 1951 over half of Māori women worked in services, compared with just over 40% of Pākehā women.

The largest groups were public hospital staff, hotel and boarding house staff, and private domestic servants. This number fell to 45% in 1956 and 37% in 1966. By 1971 it was around 25%.

Low numbers of professionals

In a number of cases, the censuses noted the relative lack of Māori professionals – both male and female. This continued over time, though there were higher numbers of Māori professionals in education, nursing and the clergy. Ākenehi Hei, who qualified as a nurse in 1908, was one of the first Māori nurses.

Early professionals

Early Māori professionals included Apirana Ngata, who graduated as a lawyer in 1895. He was followed by Thomas Ellison, also a lawyer, and doctors Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), Māui Pōmare and Edward Ellison. Most had first attended Te Aute College, which drew in students from around New Zealand.

Despite its academic success, the school was reviewed in 1906 by a Royal Commission. One aspect of its investigation was whether Te Aute had enough manual and technical instruction. The commission recommended greater emphasis on these skills, and the Department of Education pressured the school’s trustees accordingly.

This change, together with the retirement of Te Aute’s extraordinary principal, John Thornton, may have limited the numbers of Māori continuing on to university.

Unfulfilled promise

The promise heralded by the group of pioneering Māori professionals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was unfulfilled by the time that urbanisation began to take hold around the Second World War.

By 1945, there was a small number of Māori professionals, mostly in teaching, nursing and the clergy. There were 136 female teachers and 25 male teachers, and 164 nurses (all women). There were 81 male and three female clergy. There was also a single Māori lawyer, two law clerks (male and female), four doctors and two dentists. There were six managers (three men and three women).

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce - Urbanisation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 October 2023)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 Mar 2010