A stark reality for islanders: there are not enough jobs to go around

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Kiribati is the easternmost country in the world, and was the first country to enter into the year 2000.
I had been warned to bring sunscreen to Kiribati. But I had not been warned that I would be captivated by her beauty. Kiribati (pronounced as kiri-bass) is made up of 33 coral atolls, littered across 3,500,000 sq km of ocean in the Pacific—4,890 times its land area. The atolls straddle the equator with the highest point of around two meters. Reports suggest that this country, just 29 years after independence, may be the first land territory to disappear due to climate change. It is reported that if nothing is done in the next 50 years the country will sink, bringing its population of 97,000 down with it. About 40,000 people live in South Tarawa, the urban area of Kiribati.

The people of Kiribati (I-Kiribati) are thirsty. Literally. The water drawn from the wells has become almost undrinkable due to salination. The ladies say: “water cannot drink, too salty”. They would have to go digging elsewhere or share with neighbours or look for unguarded water sources. The I-Kiribati live mainly on coconuts and breadfruit. Three years of drought has caused some of the coconut trees to dry up, while high waves have damaged some of the trees closer to the water. Of course, I-Kiribati survive on fish too but fishermen are now suffering from the impact on global oil prices. They say:  “price gone up, now we don’t go so far, we catch smaller fish.”

What does the future hold for young people in Kiribati?
I also see many young people walking about on the streets. I wonder what life may be like for a young person in Kiribati. What are their options for income? They could work in the public sector (but the majority of the youth population would probably be under-qualified—only 19% of I-Kiribati have secondary or tertiary qualifications). They could apply for a job in the government or foreign-owned retail stores, and the males could be seafarers or bus drivers. They could certainly be fishermen and sell their catch at the markets. They could also get a casual job at the port, unloading cargo with goods mostly from Taiwan and some from Australia and Japan. For the enterprising youths, they could team up with their family and friends to produce handicrafts to sell to the tourist market. However, only about 4,400 people visit South Tarawa and Kirimati Island every year (of which only 10% are tourists, the rest come on business). They could consider moving to Kirimati Island where tourism is supposedly buzzing with bone-fishing visitors and Norwegian cruise ships arrivals. But this means each person would have to save up at least $1,500 for the airfare. That’s roughly 1.4 times the Gross National Income. The stark reality for I-Kiribati is that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around!

But there is a small light at the end of the tunnel. Healthy and fit I-Kiribati could try to apply as a seasonal worker picking fruits in Australia and New Zealand. The scheme in New Zealand is about one and a half years old while Australia launched their scheme in August this year. From other country experience, a worker could potentially save between $3,000-$7,000 from 5-7 months work, if they work enough hours and spend money wisely. The savings could then be used for basic living expenses, education of family members, debt repayment if relevant, or funding business ventures. If the worker did a good job and impressed the employer, he/she could be requested to return to work in the next harvest season. Over time, the worker could learn skills while overseas which could be useful on the job or back in Kiribati.
In the longer term, where can the people of Kiribati go if and when they lose their land due to the effects of global warming? If Kiribati’s Revenue Equalization Reserve Fund was equally distributed amongst I-Kiribati, they would each have $6,000 in nominal terms today. What could that buy them? A future?


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