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Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce

by Basil Keane

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.

Traditional Māori workforce

Whānau and hapū

Traditionally Māori worked on a whānau or hapū basis. Much of the daily work activity was based around the whānau, led by kaumātua (elders). Major activities such as building a , or large-scale fishing, were done by hapū under the leadership of the rangatira.

The role of rangatira was hereditary, but ability was also important. It was a matter of pride for rangatira to work as hard as ordinary workers.

Workplace training


Māori had an oral culture, and all the knowledge workers needed was passed on in songs and chants. The natural environment, from stars to flowering plants, was used as a kind of mnemonic for good work practice – for instance, the saying ‘Ka rere a Matariki ka wera te hinu’ means when Matariki appears, the fat is heated. The appearance of the constellation of Matariki (the Pleiades) in the dawn sky in June signalled the right time for catching birds, when they were plump and perfect for preserving in their own fat.


Seasonal nature

Throughout the year work was of a seasonal nature. As particular activities came around workers moved into different roles. Clearing land, planting, harvesting, fishing, eeling and fowling were all seasonal activities.

Rather than being a fisher, a gardener or a fowler, a worker would move from one activity to another through the year as dictated by the needs of the whānau or hapū. All able-bodied men were workers, and if war came, they were warriors too.

Gender roles

Certain tasks tended to be done by men and others by women. In general, activities such as rat trapping, tree climbing, fishing and warfare were performed by men. Men usually dug up aruhe (fern root) while women processed it.

Weaving was generally done by women. Certain activities, such as building and carving houses and canoes, were covered by tapu, so women could not be present.

Choosing a husband


The importance of the work ethic was stressed in proverbs such as ‘E moe i te tangata ringa raupa’ – marry a man with calloused hands (a worker).



People captured from other tribes would end up as slaves. As slaves they could perform activities that could not be done by people covered by tapu, such as carrying and cooking food.

In certain cases, subordinate hapū would come under the protection of a stronger hapū and would have to pay tribute to the stronger group. Apart from the tribute, members of these hapū were free people.


There were a number of specialists, known as tohunga. The branch of work they were engaged in would be indicated in their full title. A tohunga whakairo was a carver, tohunga whaihanga was a builder, tohunga tārai waka a canoe builder and tohunga tā moko a tattooist.

European contact


During the earliest period of contact with Europeans, the Māori workforce adapted but did not fundamentally change. Māori continued to work communally within their whānau, directed by kaumātua, or in their hapū directed by rangatira.

Trading with Pākehā

As Māori sought European technology, including firearms for warfare, they adapted their economy to supply and trade goods required by Pākehā.

Kauri spars were required by visiting ships for repairs, and large amounts of dressed flax were exported to Australia. Flax collection and working had traditionally been done on a small scale for clothing, baskets and mats, but it now became a feat of mass production. All hands were required to get massive shipments ready on time. A tonne of processed flax might purchase a single musket.

Potatoes were also traded with Pākehā – around 1814 one musket cost 150 baskets of potatoes. During the planting, care and harvest of kūmara, restrictions due to tapu sometimes limited women’s involvement. But potatoes were generally grown without the same tapu aspects, so the entire process could be done without the participation of men, and in some areas women and slaves took over production.

Māori in the European workforce

One of the earliest attempts to integrate Māori into the European workforce was a complete failure. In 1793 Northland chiefs Tuki Tahua and Ngāhuruhuru were kidnapped and taken on board a ship at the request of Lieutenant Governor Philip King of Norfolk Island.

King hoped he would be able to get them to demonstrate the techniques for manufacturing flax. However, the Norfolk Island flax was poor and the men, in any case, knew very little of flax techniques – Tuki Tahua was a tohunga, while Ngāhuruhuru was a warrior.


Very early in the 19th century Māori men started working individually aboard ships, particularly whaling vessels. A Māori crew member was working on a whaler as early as 1804. One whaling vessel was reported in 1826 as having 12 Māori crew, who were described as ‘orderly and powerful seamen’.1 In 1838, during the whale-boat races at Hobart, one-third of the whalers present were Māori.

Sex trade

At the time of first European contact, a trade in sex began. Apart from the case of a puhi (a woman required to remain chaste for a diplomatic marriage), sex before marriage carried no stigma for Māori women. Sometimes sex with European men was seen as part of an extension of traditional hospitality. In other cases, sex with sailors was like a temporary marriage where women chose to have sex with a single partner during a ship’s visit, and both they and the tribe received some goods in return. There were also cases where prostitution was forced upon Māori women by men of their tribe, often with multiple partners, and the women received no material benefit from the encounters.

Cross-cultural mediators

European traders were important mediators between Pākehā and Māori. They often became integrated into the Māori community and workforce through unions with Māori women. Most trading, timber and whaling stations – and individual traders – soon became linked to Māori through marriages.

Many early whalers, including Dicky Barrett, Phillip Tapsell and Jacky Love, married into Māori families. Manuel José had five successive marriages within Ngāti Porou, while Poverty Bay trader Thomas Halbert married six different women from East Coast tribes.

    • Quoted in Harry Morton, The whale’s wake. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1982, p. 167. Back

The rural workforce

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).


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).


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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 March 2010