Story: Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce

Page 5. Mid-1980s–2000s

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Restructuring and unemployment

The economic restructuring of the 1980s had a significant effect on Māori. Māori were disproportionately employed in some government-managed industries, including forestry, railways, road works and the Post Office. These were restructured, with major job losses. In the late 1980s and early 1990s other industries with major Māori participation like freezing works also saw restructuring and job losses.

While Māori made up 8% of the total workforce in 1986, by the end of 1992 they had accounted for 26% of the decline in employment. Māori unemployment rocketed, reaching a high of 25% in 1992, compared with a general unemployment rate of 10%.

In June 2009 Māori unemployment was 10%, compared to 5% for non-Māori.

Industry changes

In 1986, 39% of Māori were working in secondary industries – manufacturing, construction, and electricity, gas and water. By 2003 this figure had dropped to 25%.

Māori participation in the service sector had risen to 65% – particularly property and business, transport and storage, health and community, and education.

Māori employment in the primary industries (agriculture, forestry and fishing) remained relatively steady, at 10% in 1986 and 9% in 2003.


In 1981, 6,700 Māori were self-employed; by 2001, 17,100 were. Māori self-employment grew much more strongly in this period than non-Māori self-employment, but overall, self-employment was still less common among Māori. Most self-employed Māori were male, although Māori female self-employment has more than doubled since 1991.

Māori self-employment has moved away from the agricultural sector towards the service sectors. In 1981, 37% of self-employed Māori worked in the agricultural sector; by 2001 only 11% did.


From 1959 the Māori Affairs Department and the technical institutes provided trade training courses for young Māori. By 1972, Māori were 7% of apprentices. Also, until the 1980s Māori learned trades within government-controlled areas like forestry, railways and road works. Government restructuring meant those opportunities were lost. However, between 2002 and 2007, Māori trades workers increased by 61% (to 7,800), compared with total growth in trade workers of 23%.

Highly skilled occupations

In 1991, 16% of employed Māori worked in highly skilled occupations; by 2003 this had increased to 19%, partly because of the growing numbers of Māori with higher levels of education.

A strong cluster of Māori professionals can be found in the education sector (in 2004, 8,230 workers – around 4% of the Māori workforce).

Other clusters were in the health and community services, property and business services, and government administration and defence sectors. In the early 2000s around 10% of employed Māori were professionals. Around a third of Māori were in skilled or highly skilled occupations, over half were in semi-skilled work, and just over a tenth were in low-skilled occupations.


Māori overall earn less than Pākehā. The strong gender imbalance in pay in the Pākehā population is not true of Māori – Māori men earn only slightly more than Māori women.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce - Mid-1980s–2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 February 2023)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 Mar 2010