Friday, 7 February 2014

Making a living

Making a Living:
Working on the Cocos Islands

Mak Mia (wife of Pak Mia) is a specialist teacher at the Home Island school. She also distributes pharmaceutical goods from the plane.

Keeping gardens, chickens etc, the subject of my blog "Making things grow", only goes so far. So I need to look at other aspects of the economy. In this blog, I’ll focus on working for money.

 During WWII, when there was an Allied airbase on West Island, some Home Island traded with airforce personnel. Since it was established in the late 1800s, the cable station, responsible for relaying telegraphs and then a wireless (radio) station, did not employ locals, but there was also some trade. 

Many of the older people living on Home Island now were once incorporated into the coconut economy of the Clunies-Ross days. They worked collecting coconuts from the islands of the Cocos atoll, husking them so they could be shipped off to Australia. They were paid in the Clunies-Ross currency and could spend it at the Clunies-Ross shop.In particular, after becoming part of Australia, the coconut industry stopped. 

These days, how do the Cocos Malays living on Home Island get by?  People buy supplies shipped in by boat or air. Primarily, these goods are retailed at several shops on Home Island and on West Island. 

Many isolated small populations struggle to develop a large, varied 'formal' economy and the Home Island population is no exception. I would like to get a trained economist's perspective on this, but, anecdotally, it seems that in view of the challenges, the Cocos Malays have successfully transitioned to a market economy in some aspects of their economic life.

For some employment is provided by a steady trickle of tourist visitors. On Home Island, several shops open a few hours a day to sell bait, trinkets, clothes, and so on; and a small supermarket is open longer. Nevertheless, work opportunities are comparatively limited. A large proportion (compared to mainland Australia) of the Cocos Malay  population receives state welfare in the form of pensions, unemployment benefits, and the like. And the state seems to employ a large proportion of those who have work. The Cocos Malays have established a large co-op, which provides employment, including the  ‘ground crew’ on West Island for the three flights per week of a commercial passenger carrier (Virgin) between Perth and Cocos, and the one flight per week of a courier company (Toll). And finally some local enterprise has developed, in the form of about 30 small businesses. It appears that many work limited hours, that is part-time, sometimes in different jobs. 

So where do the Cocos Malays, who reside on Home Island, work? Much of the work is done on Home Island. 
Welding for the mosque

Working the cash register at the largest local supermarket

Shire workers building another lane on Jalan Pantai (Ocean Road).

Co-op workers unloading containers after the supply ship arrived. 

Family members helping stock one of Home Island's shops after the supply boat has arrived.
Nek Iwat's shop

Nek Iwat gave these kids some free drinks for Hari Raya

 Aside from working on Home Island, many catch the daily ferry across the lagoon to work on West Island. Here is a day in the life style record of work on West Island and on the way back. It is a composite over several days though:

Travelling on the top deck of the 6am ferry to West Island

Walking down the jetty to the bus
These three men are entering the quarantine station, where they work.

Virgin flies 3x/week as at February, 2014. Cocos Malays are employed as ground staff.

PJ works for Toll, a logistics company which flies a cargo plane into West Island once/week as of February, 2014. He's pictured here about to get a cool drink at the end of his working day.

Kylie (in the background) returned to Home Island a few years ago. Her mum and husband are Cocos Malays. Rosie (in the foreground) is Cocos Malay. These two, along with the other staff at the Tourist Centre, are very welcoming and informative.
Azrin (left) works for Quarantine when the Virign flight arrives. PJ works casual for Toll and for the Department of Infrastructure. Work has finished and both are waiting for the bus to the ferry terminal.
Nek Nina drives the bus between the ferry terminal and settlement on West Island. He's such a nice guy, it's worth catching the bus just to chat with him. He's employed by the Co-operative.
Pak Mia, smiling as usual, collecting fares on the return trip to Home Island. The ferry workers are also employed by the Co-operative.  PJ is visible in the right foreground.

The skipper hosing down the ferry at the Home Island jetty. The last trip for the day is complete.


As I mentioned in “making things grow”, “mode of adaptation” refers to how people make a living. It might be through hunting and gathering (e.g. Australian Aborigines pre-contact); growing gardens (e.g. ni-Vanuatu of Vanuatu); herding animals (e.g. some Mongolian tribes). From around 1500 in Europe, societies have begun to trade goods, labour, land, and even cash as commodities for sale in increasingly international economies. Put simply, to get by, people sell their labour to buy stuff. The value of the labour and the stuff they buy is determined by an international market. This mode of adaptation we could simply call “capitalism”. However, as in many other societies, only a part of economic life could be characterised as capitalist. I will blog more about capitalist and non-capitalist economic elements as I get to experience them.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there, i am Bahari from Malaysia. I came to discover about this island today when i had a chat with a friend. And his used to stay in christmas island before where there are a significant Malays too.

    I am so amazed and once i wish that i could visit here. Can we get in touch pls?

    Fb: fuzir barry