COVID-19 and the World of Work

“We could all do with a bit of hope” – What the informal economies recovery project means for Tonga

This month we sat down with Mele Amanaki - Secretary General of the Tonga Public Service Association [TPSA] – a key partner in the Inclusive Economic Recovery through Sustainable Enterprises in the Informal Economies. She spoke about her role and what the Project means for Tonga.

News | 30 March 2021
Mele Amanaki
This month we sat down with Mele Amanaki - Secretary General of the Tonga Public Service Association [TPSA] – a key partner in the Informal Economies Recovery Project. She spoke to Sanya Ruggiero (ILO communications project consultant) about her role and what the Project means for Tonga. [Edited for brevity]

Sanya: Hi Mele, What is your role in the current Informal Economy Project?
Mele: TPSA is working with the International Labour Organisation in the Pacific, looking at organizing Tongan informal workers in the Agricultural and Creative Sectors, through formal associations. The goal is to provide a platform for Tongans within the informal economy, where their collective voice can be amplified and included in the decision-making of the Government; particularly in the areas of employment and COVID-19 recovery.

Sanya: Can you tell us about some of the initial reactions to and successes of the Project?
Mele: We met with the Hon. Minister of Labour, Mr. Tatafu Moeaki prior to implementing the project and he was very supportive of the idea to organize the informal sector, which was a great start!

Since then, the Division of the Corporate Service of MAFF and Culture of the Ministry of Tourism have already worked with me to record an awareness programme for TV and radio, informing the general public of the project.

We have now completed public consultations in the three Districts of the main island, Tongatapu (Western, Eastern & Central), which resulted in the informal worker participants agreeing to the formation of five new national workers' associations! That’s huge!

These associations will be:

1. Tonga National Agricultural Workers' Association;
2. Tonga National Animal Husbandry Workers' Association;
3. Tonga National Tapa-making Workers' Association;
4. Tonga Weaving Workers' Association;
5. Tonga Handicraft & Small Tourism Workers' Association.

They elected positions for chair and vice chair, treasurer & vice treasurer and secretary and vice secretaries for the District Committee; and have elected the President and Vice Presidents for the national workers' associations. Each of the District Committees of the five national workers' association have also identified three income generating enterprises which they will establish to assist their members and/or earn income for the District Committees.

At the national level, the three District Committees which comprise of the chairs, treasurers & secretaries combined together to form the Executive Committee of the national workers associations. The Executive Committees have already identified income generating activities for which they plan to seek funding assistance from Government or donor partners. In total, the new 5 national workers associations have over 300 members.

Sanya: Wow, that is a massive achievement! Can you share any informal feedback you have been receiving?
Mele: During the public consultations, the participants - who are informal workers and business owners - expressed their support for the objectives of the project. They were also very happy to have established associations which will give them a louder voice. Now that they understand the benefits of being a member of a workers association, they have even decided to pay affiliation fees of TOP$10 per month to show their commitment. That’s a very concrete show of trust.

Sanya: Why do you think this Project is so important for Tonga?
Mele: In forming the national workers' associations, the project has given a voice to the informal workers in the Agricultural & Creative Sectors – something that has not existed before.

In the first COVID-19 Government Stimulus Package that was rolled out between April-June 2020, most of the allocated TOP$60m (USD 30 million) went towards supporting the recovery of formally registered businesses. A very small amount found its way into the informal sector, simply because these non-registered businesses were not aware of the Stimulus Package.
This will not be the case now that the national workers associations have been formed. Informal businesses and workers will be able to apply for government assistance whenever it becomes available.

Excitingly, shortly after the establishment of the national workers associations on March 18th 2021, the Ministry of Trade, Economic Development & Labour announced the following day the launch of the second Stimulus Package for COVID-19 Recovery!

In one week, we have submitted over four hundred informal business and workers’ applications for funding assistance – and that is from the Western District alone!
The application process will end on April 9th, by which time we expect to have submited around one thousand applications.

Tongans are being able to see the results of this project straight away!

Sanya: That is amazing Mele! What do you hope this project will achieve for Tonga?
Mele: We hope that at least sixty to eighty percent of Tonga’s informal workers will become members of an association. In a country where informal workers comprise approximately seventy five percent of the working-class population, this is a crucial step to building back better. I’d also like to see the productivity of the sector be improved through the establishment of the planned small enterprises – this would mean an increase in income, self-esteem and therefore hope. We could all do with a bit of hope during these times.