By Lisa Williams-Lahari - firstname.lastname@example.org
Hundreds of migrant workers in the Cook Islands are helping to fill labour shortages in the country, but updating immigration and labour laws to manage the flow is not the only answer says Immigration Compliance official Chere Arthur.
Arthur says it's important for vocational training initiatives and outreach to attract Cook Islanders in country or eyeing a return home.
The minimum wage in the Cooks has gone up twice in the last 12 months and is sitting on $7.25 NZD per hour.
Yet many still prefer to leave for greener fields in Australia and New Zealand, where they can earn many more times that amount.
Enter citizens from Fiji and the Philippines - or those seeking a lifestyle change from New Zealand - all three are the top home nations for more than 1,600 migrant workers currently in the Cook Islands, mainly in the tourism and hospitality sector or working for retail and sole traders.
"There is a demand for us Cook Islanders on island to get the right vocational training to fill those labour shortages, to get us enthusiastic about being Cook Islanders working for Cook Islanders," says Arthur.
"We have seen an increase in migrant labour coming through and with that increase comes a lot of employment issues."
While the law catches up to the new demographic for the labourforce, Cook Islands officials are well aware of the varied reactions to that impact across all aspects of everyday life on Rarotonga, where most of the migrants compete alongside pa enua workers for affordable homes.
"Some people like it and some people don't. I think in terms of where we are right now, that's just the way of the world - it doesn't mean we have to let it get out of control; we can control it, we can own it, and we can dictate how it's going to operate, to work for us," says Arthur.
Sharing the Cook Islands experiences as a receiving country and some key priorities moving forward at the annual regional Labour Mobility talks in Honiara earlier this month, the Australia and New Zealand experience when it comes to the diversity migrant workers bring to their host communities is largely positive.
As for some perceptions by local residents of being overwhelmed by the changing faces and cultural mix of the Cook Islands workforce, Arthur says the reality is that until the locals take over, the demand is going to stay that way.
"At this point in time due to the labour shortage, that's just the way it is."