Employment and work in the settlements

by Fiona Hukula, Papua New Guinea National Research Institute

Settlements in Papua New Guinea have always been associated with low income earners and unemployment. This categorisation leads to assumptions about criminality, urban safety and vagrancy. A settlement, though physically part of Port Moresby, epitomises the contradictions of an ideal urban social life, the world of the city where you can thrive to make a living through paid employment or street selling in the informal economy. The growing middle class including business people and white collar workers and the educated elite of Port Moresby continually condemn settlements as crime infested locales, connected to the city through potholed roads and illegal utility connections, where unemployed people spend their days sitting around gambling, planning criminal activities and engaging in other behaviour considered socially unacceptable. These assumptions are largely based on negative media coverage, a western informed idea about what a modern Port Moresby should look like, coupled with a lack of knowledge of the lives of settlement residents. The ongoing debate about settlements and urbanisation has been prevalent in Papua New Guinea (PNG) since the 1970s. The daily newspapers regularly publish letters from Port Moresby residents condemning settlers and urging the government to take a tougher stance by repatriating them to their home provinces. In addition to the more traditional forms of media, the internet has given Papua New Guineans the opportunity to debate such issues on online forums, facebook, blogs and on websites concerning PNG.

Because settlements are stereotyped as the breeding gounds for anti-social behavior they are often the target for police operations and demolition exercises which are mostly knee jerk reactions by government authorities when pressured by public opinion on issues such as crime and unemployment.

Public opinion about settlements also seems to be shared by policy makers and bureaucrats. Recent government documents about urbanisation portray settlements as places where low income earners, unemployed people and criminals live1. Government policies and plans have been formulated to address what is perceived to be a problem of modernity and development (or lack of it). International NGOs and donors in their efforts to address developmental catch phrases such as ‘poverty alleviation’ and ‘gender equality’, also depict the experience of settlement life in ways that affirm the conventional ideas about them. While I do not necessarily disagree with the claims made by international donors and government agencies, I think there is a need for a more nuanced understanding of settlements and their populations.

This paper presents ethnographic evidence that supports and strengthens Goddard (2005), Barber (2003) and more recently Rooney’s (2015) research that challenges stereotypical notions of urban settlements. It is based on my doctoral fieldwork (2009-2010) at an urban settlement in Port Moresby comprising people from Morobe Province and known locally as the Morobe blok. The paper presents examples of the employment experiences of residents of the blok together with their ideas about work. I also include examples of how residents of Port Moresby settlements who come from many different backgrounds are able to make a home in a rapidly modernising city.

Places of employment and types of work

In Morobe blok, settlement dwellers engage in paid formal work, informal income generation, or both as the uncertainty of employment, low wages and the rising cost of goods and services requires innovative income generating options. This situation also applies to many other settlements in Port Moresby as Umezaki and Ohtsuka (2003) show. The involvement in extra income generating activities by wage earning blok dwellers is not localised to the blok, and in front of suburban homes the sale of ice blocks, mobile phone top-up cards and other small items is a highly visible activity. This type of entrepreneurship by urban dwellers has been obvious since the late 1970’s. For example, people from the Mount Hagen area in the Western Highlands (Hageners) who were employed in the early seventies engaged in other forms or income generation such as taxi driving as an avenue to make more money. The sale of betelnut, fruit, art and craft outside designated market places is also a characteristic of urban living that has expanded over time. Ranck (1982) divided the informal retail trade into three catergories: urban markets, many of which were established during colonial times; side-walk traders or street sales people; and mobile trading vans and liklik stoas (small trade stores), or what are commonly known as a tucker box. The following examples illustrate how settlement dwellers make and think about money.

Bank teller to buai seller

Tuo is a regular vendor at the blok’s main bus stop market. Tuo states that with marketing he gets more money than he did when he was working full time as a bank teller. He makes between $AU27 and $AU39 profit daily from his buai (betel nut), cigarette and lolly sales. He said he is better off now that he is formally unemployed because when he was working he would buk money (borrow money on credit), drink a lot and go to clubs. He said when he started to sell buai, some people were surprised because they knew him as a bank employee and his daily presence at the bus stop was to catch the bus to go to work in town and not to sell buai at the bus stop market. Now that Tuo is not in waged employment, he does not feel pressured to socialise with his friends in the same way as when he was employed. He now feels he has more money because he does not engage in drinking and night clubbing. This is not to say that men who are formally employed are the only ones who consume large amounts of alcohol because young, single buai sellers also buy beer and drink away profits. For Tuo, it is not only about money but about being in a different place where there are not the social relationships which activate ideas of drinking, borrowing money and going to clubs.

The irony of Tuo’s situation also lies in the western derived idea of work and prestige where it is assumed that a bank teller would have more money than a buai seller due to the nature of their jobs. Tuo said he was thinking of looking for waged employment again. This consideration was not based on a need to go back to work as a means to survive because Tuo knows that he can earn money from selling buai. It is more a case of knowing he has options. Tuo was one of a number of people I met who left their paid jobs and were doing other kinds of work. It is through meeting people like Tuo and Victor, whose story I tell next, that I want to show how blok people think about work.

Victor and the flawa lain (Flower people)

Amongst the weekday movements of buai and urban gardeners are the flawa lain who come by with their wheel barrows full of soil or leaves which they collect to look after their plants. The flawa lain sell their plants only on the weekend because their chances of selling their flowers are maximised by the increase in numbers of city residents travelling on the main Sogeri road. Flower gardening enthusiasts regularly travel to Nine Mile to view and buy the seedlings cultivated by blok gardeners. Four wheel drive vehicles and dark glass sedans pull up along the dusty roadside and their occupants come out of their air conditioned vehicles to inspect the flowers and on many occasions purchase seedlings to take to their homes in the city. Prices of seedlings range from 50 cents to $AU6 depending on the species.

Victor, who is in his thirties, owns a small landscaping and pot plant hire business and cultivates a wide range of flowers for most of which he knows the scientific name. He is very determined to succeed in his business and not long after meeting me, he seized the opportunity to ask me for assistance in promoting his business. Victor decided to go into business for himself after working at various places as a gardener. He also worked for a flower and landscaping business owned by an expatriate. Victor said he realised that he knew as much as the waitman (white man) when it came to gardening and plants and he thought the waitman did not adequately remunerate his workers. While aspiring to gain more work, Victor said that it is really difficult to do business in Port Moresby if you are a grass roots (in the PNG context the ‘grass roots’ are low income or unemployed people. Settlers are often classified as grass roots) man.

It’s who you know, I don’t know anyone in government and in business so when I approach people to market my business, they are not interested. My plants are on hire at two big companies and one government organisation but honestly that’s not a lot. My overhead costs are large because I don’t have my own truck which means when I have to go to the different offices to change the flower pots, I need to find people in the block who have cars available for hire. Can you help me market my business please? You work for the government, can you use your connections to assist me? I just need some more exposure and so I can get more jobs and hopefully make enough money to one day buy a car.

By seeking my assistance, Victor was essentially asking me to grant him access to a network which he felt was inaccessible to him. He was hopeful that with my assistance he may be able to access a network of relations which he could then convert into business opportunities. Victor and I put together a flyer advertising his small business, which I sent to various contacts. As a result, Victor successfully acquired a number of small landscaping jobs. After he was remunerated for his first job, Victor came to my house and shared $AU9 with me. When I refused his money, he insisted saying that it was my assistance that helped him get a small work contract therefore it was right that I have a share of his good fortune. Success in the Melanesian context means including all those who have contributed to one’s wellbeing. In this case, Victor felt compelled to give me money from his work contract as his way of acknowledging my contribution as well as keeping our relations in mind in case there was a need to further help each other.

Wok sikiriti (security work)

Mark was unemployed when I first met him. He was pursuing a court case against his former employer for unlawful dismissal. During the year I was conducting fieldwork Mark found employment as a driver for the dog unit of an international security company. He worked for nearly three months before resigning to take up another job as a driver for the British owned security company G4S. Security jobs pay a minimum wage of around $AU120.70 a fortnight, however, as a driver Mark’s salary is closer to $AU201. Mark’s role as a driver allows him to earn a wage above that of a static siggy (security guard), because the job of a driver comes with the responsibility of driving company vehicles and transporting static security officers to their work locations. Mark aspired to work for a company like G4S because the salary is better than other security firms and also because G4S is associated with the PNG LNG project. Therefore, Mark believes those who are employed by G4S, and work specifically at the project site, may have better benefits such as training and maybe the opportunity to work at the project site in the Highlands as well.

Employment as a security guard is seen as unskilled menial work, however the private security industry in Port Moresby is a big business and the demand for security workers is large with both local and international firms advertising and holding day recruitment drives to hire static guards, drivers and dog handlers. Work in waged employment does bring a sense of prestige, however it does not necessarily equate to financial security for urban dwellers. Many families like Sarah’s, whose story I tell next, supplement their wages through street sales and other income generating activities.

A health worker and bisnis meri (business woman)

Sarah is a health worker who works at the Port Moresby General Hospital and is sometimes referred as the nurse meri. Sarah could be considered well off as she and her husband (a mechanic) had jobs and Sarah also engaged in other income generating activities such as chicken farming and dinau moni (money lending). From her informal businesses and their combined employment Sarah and her husband were able to send their daughter to a private Christian school in town. They own a second hand car which they use when it is free of mechanical problems.

As a health worker, Sarah’s take home salary ranges around $AU337 a fortnight while her husband, a qualified mechanic who works for a leading automotive distributor, is paid about the same as Sarah. Sarah works seven day shifts with two or three days off between shifts depending on whether she is working a day or night shift. She employs a baby sitter who lives nearby to help her with her children and this enables her to travel early to the hospital if she is assigned to work a night shift (10pm-6am) or to sleep at the hospital if she works an afternoon shift (2-10pm) and has difficulty with transport . Sarah rarely talks about her work except to say that the ward is always busy because there are not enough nurses or community health workers to serve the increasing number of patients at the hospital.

Apart from being a qualified community health worker, Sarah is also an astute businesswoman who, while holding down a full time job, also has a kakaruk bisnis (chicken business) and a money lending business. In the same way that Sarah’s extra income generating activities are not limited to the blok, her money lending business is not limited to settlements, but is a feature of urban living with many people living on money lending either as sellers or borrowers. It entails loaning money to trusted customers for a profit. There are different levels of interest usually set by the creditor themselves depending on different factors such as competition and knowledge of customers. The minimum amount of money one can borrow is $AU4.50 which generally requires a repayment of interest of $AU1.50 or $AU2.25 a fortnight. In some cases creditors consider it acceptable for their debtors to pay the ‘interest’ every two weeks and repay the mama moni, or original loan amount, when they are able to. By doing this the debtor is avoiding the accumulation of interest which, if added on every two weeks, would end up costing the borrower double or more than the original loan. By paying only the interest on a loan the debtor is continuously acknowledging the relationship between the two which indicates that the debtor is thinking about the lender and the money that it is owed. While money lending essentially operates on good faith, non payment of debts is also known to be the cause of disputes.


What I have described here illustrates the resilience and innovative ways that settlement dwellers choose to earn a living. While many settlement residents are involved in the informal economy, it is also important to note that the different kinds of employment and ideas of work are not confined to settlement life, and the hardships of urban life are not limited to those who are resident in settlements. Suburban Port Moresby also reflects the kinds of livelihoods described in this paper essentially blurring the lines between settlements and suburbs and the formal and the informal.

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