Older workers fear permanent unemployment

Tourism sector workers who have lost their job in the midst of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are concerned they will never again find employment, the Samoa First Union says.

Senior organiser Saina Tomi Setu said that, as time goes on, older workers in their 40s may never return to the workforce as younger graduates move into the sector and the competition for jobs becomes more intense. 

“This is the end of their life working, they have lost their job and they don’t know what is next,” she said.

“If the Government lifts the lockdown next year and there are a lot of young ones graduating in different industries, it will be a big struggle for [the older ones] to go back and work.

“Now, they stay home, doing agriculture work…. that’s why they feel down, it’s difficult for them to apply again for a new job.”

A recent report by the research arm of the ANZ Bank found that some 18 per cent of Samoans employed in the formal sector lost their job last year, citing data derived from private-sector data. 

Getting back into paid employment is a multi-faceted struggle for workers, she said.

Workers have come to the union offices feeling dejected and depressed, and don’t know how to pick themselves up.

Despite many Samoans counting themselves lucky to live rent-free on customary land and growing their own food for subsistence, many continue to struggle to pay for basic needs such as water, electricity, and school fees. 

 “It’s a big struggle if you lose a job. You have everything in your job, even if you just earn a hundred a week, but it’s something to help your family,” Ms. Setu said.

“There are people who used to work in hotels in reception, they are used to facing different people in their lives. 

“When you are hosting guests your experience grows, but now you’re at home for a year, it makes you feel down.”

Between their age and their lost year of work, Ms. Setu fears older workers won’t try to return to work when the nation’s borders open and jobs begin to return to Samoa. 

In meetings, she says she tries to encourage them by highlighting their many years of experience in their field and suggests that they train up the young people in their families, to ensure at least someone will get a new job. 

“We can’t do anything with the COVID we are facing right now, but I keep telling them to pass their experience to family young ones. Educate your family relatives in the experience you have, to continue to contribute to the development of the family,” she said. 

Even with the advent of COVID-19 vaccines, economic recovery in Samoa will be slow. 

The latest survey of the Pacific Business Monitor shows 37 per cent of interviewed businesses believing their revenue won’t be back to pre-pandemic levels until next year or later.

Just five per cent are enjoying business as usual, the survey found. 

Nearly 70 per cent of respondents believe their business will survive the pandemic, but since the routine surveys began in May 2020 between four and ten per cent consistently believe their business won’t make it.  

To help out-of-work individuals get back on their feet, S.F.U. has been delivering training on starting their own business, such as in handicrafts, food or clothing.

So far they have seen 60 people through two of these week-long workshops and plan to do another two for 60 more people in March.

Ms. Setu said the majority of participants so far have been women and estimates that close to 80 per cent of all laid-off workers seeking help have been women. 

In the union's Upolu workshop, there was just one male participant in a crowd of 30, while in Savai'i the split was slightly more even. 

“I think 75 or 80 per cent of laid off workers are women. They are not only in the hotel sector,” she said.

“For a lot of the hotel workers, no one is going back to work. What I worry about from our experiences with our Savaiian workers, is they only get calls from the hotels to come in if they have Government conferences or a Government ministry visit in Savaii, but the majority of them are still stuck at home.

“Some look for other jobs but every day there is a growing number of laid-off workers.”

The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour did not immediately respond to questions sent on Wednesday about the fate of unemployed workers. 

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