Returning to Samoa after 38 years – a reflection on the growth of capitalist relations

I first visited Samoa in 1981. I went there to report for the newspaper Socialist Action on a recent strike by government workers organized in the Public Service Association. At the time, government workers constituted the largest sector of the wage workers, and the PSA was the largest union. The street demonstrations in support of the strikers – who stayed out for three months and were dismissed en masse by the government – were the biggest political actions in Samoa since independence in 1962 (and probably the biggest since the mobilisations in support of the Mau movement for self-determination and against New Zealand colonial rule in the 1920s and 1930s.)

Samoa PSA strike, 1981. Banner translates as “Change the government. Everyone wants to make a living”  Photo: Socialist Action

In 1981, Samoa (then called Western Samoa*) was on the United Nations list of the ten poorest countries in the world by per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Wages were extremely low – I forget the exact figures, but from memory it was the equivalent of about $50 per week today. It took me a while to understand how wages could be so low, when the prices for everything in the shops, from food to household items such as shoes and clothing, cooking pots, glassware and plasticware, toilet paper, cleaning materials, and so on, were much higher than in New Zealand. It all seemed to defy the law of value.

The explanation, I eventually discovered, was that very few people depended entirely on these wages for their means of life. At that time, almost everyone working for a wage, even in central Apia, had access to a patch of land where they could grow most of their own food, and a house in the village where they could live rent-free. Wages were mainly needed to meet the needs which, outside of Apia, were provided for by selling surplus produce, such as clothing and footwear. These needs were widening – electronic consumer goods were just making their appearance in large numbers. Boom box sound systems were being brought back on the shoulders of migrant workers returning from New Zealand and Australia. Remittances from family members who had migrated to New Zealand for work also filled these gaps.

(The high proportion of subsistence production also meant that the UN poverty index, which used per-capita GDP as its measure, was highly inaccurate, since GDP is a measure not of total production of goods and services but only of production for the market. Samoa was certainly poor, but nowhere did I see the extremes of poverty such as in parts of the third world where market relations were more dominant. There was no sign of beggars on the streets, for example. Houses, grassed areas, and streets were basic, but well-kept and rubbish-free – thanks to functioning village committees.)

In those days, electricity was in short supply, and expensive, mostly coming from generators powered by costly imported diesel. If a house was connected to electric power at all, they typically ran one light bulb in the evening, nothing more. Kerosene lamps were still a common form of lighting. Cooking was done over wood fires or stoves burning kerosene or bottled gas. Refrigerators and microwaves were all but unknown; air-conditioning was a luxury of tourist hotels.

Vehicles on the roads were mostly either trucks, buses or taxis – private cars were rare. Fuel, imported already refined, was expensive.

The entire economy was in a state of dependence on New Zealand. Most of the trade, as well as financial and political connections with the outside world, went through the former colonial power of New Zealand. Jealously guarding its tight monopoly, the New Zealand capitalist class kept the country in a state of backwardness and poverty.

Main wharf at port of Apia in 1984. Photo: Samoa Ports Authority

The very high prices of imported goods were largely a function of the inefficient shipping port in Apia, and the technological backwardness of transportation from there to the outer villages. Standard shipping containers had been the norm in the main New Zealand ports since the early 1970s, drastically cutting the costs of international freight – but didn’t reach Samoa until thirty years later.

Handling cargo at Apia docks (approx 1975-1985) Photo: Archives New Zealand

Industries were small and technologically backward. When I visited in 1981, the only substantial factories were the Vailima brewery (established during the short period of German colonial control), a small factory making luxury hand-soap from coconut oil, and some even smaller operations canning coconut cream and lu’au, a traditional food. The high cost of imported fuels and electricity, and the backward state of the port, precluded most industrial production for export. Exports, such as they were, consisted of unprocessed produce like fruit and taro or minimally-processed products like copra (dried coconut flesh), canned coconut cream, and a short-lived export of tropical hardwood logs and rough-sawn timber. Taro exports alone accounted for half of export receipts in 1993.

Some of my most enduring memories of Samoa’s poverty and its relationship to New Zealand relate to food and diet. In a country surrounded by oceans teeming with tuna, the only fish sold in the local market were a few tiny fish from the shallows of the lagoon. Fish formed a large part of the local diet, but mostly in the form of canned herrings imported from Europe. Meanwhile, American tuna boats based in American Samoa and equipped with the latest technology were sweeping up large catches of tuna beyond the reef, out of reach of the Samoans.

Similarly with meat: while there were a few cattle grazing between the coconut trees on the old plantations established under German rule, fresh beef was prohibitively expensive. The main kind of meat consumed was canned corned beef imported from New Zealand. So important was it, in fact, that cans of corned beef functioned as a form of currency in the settlement of debts and fines in the village justice system.

As a tourist on the outside of both the village-based food preparation and consumption on the one hand and of the luxury hotels (of which there were a small number) on the other, I remember finding it strangely difficult to buy a cooked meal. Restaurants catering to anyone other than moneyed tourists were almost non-existent – clearly there was a very limited market for prepared food among the local people. The one exception was the Apia central market, where a cooked meal could be bought very cheaply. But alongside a piece of taro or fa’i (green bananas) the protein content of these meals was always one of three things: one of the tiny fish from the lagoon, or a piece of lamb belly flap, or chicken backs. Did the Samoan chickens not have leg or breast meat, I wondered?

This was the time when Kentucky Fried Chicken was becoming very popular in New Zealand – and the part of the chicken they never use in KFC is the back. When the lamb carcasses which at that time formed the core of New Zealand’s export meat trade were divided into smaller cuts, the fatty and stringy belly flaps were often discarded as worthless. And in both cases, New Zealand’s waste was exported to become Samoa’s food.


Workers at the Yazaki factory in Apia, shortly before it closed in 2017. Photo: ILO

Not long after my visit, the extremely low wages began to attract the attention of manufacturers whose needs for labour were high, but who required little in the way of infrastructure or energy. Yazaki Corporation, a Japanese manufacturer of electrical ‘harnesses’ (so-called because the clusters of wires slightly resemble horse harness straps) for the automotive industry in Australia, was one of these. With generous incentives from the Samoan government, Yazaki relocated their factory from New Zealand (where their employees had been mainly Samoan immigrants earning New Zealand wages) to Samoa, paying Samoan wages. This single factory employed 3,000 workers at its height, and accounted for some 20% of Samoa’s total manufacturing output.

The Samoan Observer quoted the Prime Minister talking about this factory on the occasion of its closing in 2017. “According to the Prime Minister, there were challenges the management faced with the attitude of the Samoan employees at the beginning. ‘The employees were not used to standing the whole day and working all the time, until break. They were not allowed to talk while on the job, not allowed to smoke, and other employees were always late in the mornings, calling in sick, when they were actually doing something else. I was asked ­– at the time I was Minister of Finance – to talk to the employees and encourage them on the importance of hard working and following the rules. I gave them the ultimatum and threatened to close down Yazaki … This is how corporate businesses operate, they open one branch and close another and they target countries that make them money and most especially countries with low minimum wage.’”

Despite this investment, the Samoan economy remained in a prolonged state of stagnation until the middle 1990s, worsened by the effects of two devastating cyclones, Ofa in February 1990 and Val in December 1991, and a leaf blight which devastated the taro crop in 1994.


Visiting Samoa in October this year, I found it strikingly different. Today Samoa is a place of rapid economic development. Apia had been transformed by new buildings, upgraded infrastructure, cars, double-lane highways, traffic jams, and continuing construction works.

Aid from China has enabled Samoa to build solar-cell arrays, hydroelectric plants and wind turbines to generate electricity

Electrification of the islands is the greatest change. Today electricity reaches even remote villages, and usually in sufficient quantities. The government has developed small-scale hydroelectric projects in the mountains, a few small wind generators, and banks of solar panels, which together meet more than half the island’s needs, reducing the dependence on diesel generation and cutting the cost of electricity. (Located just south of the equator, Samoa is buffeted by the constant moderate easterly Trade Winds – it could probably meet most of its energy needs from this source alone, if it was properly developed).  This electricity now powers refrigeration, television and other electric appliances, fans and air-conditioning in many homes, and lighting that meets the need. There is electricity sufficient for small industries, and some of these have sprung up around Apia. A digital cellular network has extended telecommunications to the whole population.

Container ship unloads at Apia port July 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Barrett

The seaport has been upgraded, especially by extending the wharf, which can now take small and medium-sized container ships. Shipping is therefore no longer confined to the limited services from New Zealand – container ships, as well as larger fuel tankers, arrive directly from Japan, China, the United States, and Europe, and the other island countries. Prices for most goods in the shops are now comparable to those in New Zealand.

Skipjack tuna on sale at Apia fish market, October 2019. Photo: James Robb

A separate wharf for fishing boats was developed, and with investment in larger fishing boats that go beyond the reef, Samoa now participates fully in the offshore tuna fishery – albeit an increasingly over-exploited fishery – most of which is exported. Annual per capita fish consumption in Samoa is about 50kg – about a kilogram of fish per week per person – compared with less than 10kg per capita per annum in New Zealand.

Cruise ship at extended Apia port. The old T-shaped wharf can be seen at left, incorporated into the new wharf. Photo: Samoa Ports Authority

Luxury cruise boats can now dock at the big wharf, and tourism has vastly expanded. The airport has also been upgraded to accommodate increasing passenger numbers. (Not a small proportion of the tourists are Samoans who are children of the first generation of migrants, and who have grown up in New Zealand).

Larger, modern fishing boats at Apia wharf, October 2019. Photo: James Robb

Much of this new development is due, directly and indirectly, to aid and investment from China. In proportion to its growing economic and military strength, China has been extending loans and funding infrastructure development ‘aid’ projects across the Pacific.  Chinese aid funded the airport upgrade, and construction was done by a Shanghai company. China does this is for the same reasons the old imperialist powers did – to extend its network of strategic military points of support, to widen its diplomatic circle of friends, and also to find profitable outlets for Chinese capital investment.

Signboard of a Chinese-funded agricultural project in Falelatai village, Upolu, Samoa. Photo: James Robb

China is planning to invest in developing a major port at Asua, on the far western coast of Savai’i, where in the 1970s there was a small wharf serving the exports of tropical hardwoods. The United States and its allies have raised concerns that this port could be used by China for military purposes. Speaking about these US concerns, the Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi responded, “Their enemies are not our enemies.”

Japanese aid project building a bridge between Apia and the port. Photo: James Robb

The Chinese investment has prompted its competitors to extend their efforts along similar lines. The extension of the port of Apia was undertaken mostly by Japanese interests, for example; Japanese aid is also funding the construction of a major bridge between the city and the port. Workers on these projects are mostly Samoan; the foremen, Japanese.

Worker on a fishing boat, Apia, 2019. Photo: James Robb

Either way, New Zealand and Australia no longer monopolise development aid as in the past, and the result has been some welcome investment in Samoa. Samoa’s per capita GDP has increased steadily from $US800  in 1993 to $US4,400 in 2018. (The subsistence component of Samoa’s economy remains substantial, and so this figure is still an unreliable indicator of Samoa’s total economic output, however it does show the rapid advance of the commodity economy.)

But there are limits.

Historically, one of the fundamental conditions of capitalist development has been the expropriation of the producers from the land, a process which compels the dispossessed to work for wages. First the German, and then the New Zealand colonial rulers attempted to dispossess the Samoans of their customary land rights, and in particular of collective ownership of land. While the German administration made some inroads against customary land, establishing some large plantations of coconuts and other crops worked by indentured labourers brought by force and deception from the Solomon Islands and China, their New Zealand successors failed spectacularly. In fact the oppressive New Zealand administration sparked a deep-going movement for Samoan self-determination, known as the Mau, in the 1920s and 1930s.

To a degree, the separation of the toilers from the land has been accomplished by way of mass migration, especially to New Zealand. Since the 1960s, several generations have left the villages, drawn by higher wages and better educational opportunities for their children in New Zealand. While many of these migrants retain ties to Samoa, and some return permanently, few return to subsistence agriculture. More often they come as small business people, professionals or retirees, increasingly detached from the village. Clearly there is a much larger number of people in Samoa living outside of the village – both its constraints and its social safety net – and increasingly, if not entirely, dependent on wages for their living. One reflection of this is the appearance of musician-buskers and others semi-begging on the streets. Another is a small but growing number cases of infants being abandoned anonymously for adoption at hospitals and churches.

The big majority of productive land in Samoa remains in collective ownership. However in recent years there have been growing concerns expressed among Samoans both in Samoa and in New Zealand that ambiguities in a 2008 law, the Lands Title Registration Act, are being used to transfer that land to individual title.

March in Apia, December 2017, protesting the Land Title Registration Act of 2008, which is being used to transfer communally-owned land to individual title. Photo: RNZ

In December 2017 a march of 200 people in Apia protested this law. Similar concerns were raised at a meeting of Samoans in Auckland a few weeks later, organised by the Samoa Solidarity International group. The Samoan Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, has denied that customary lands have been sold to anyone. He said that under the constitution customary lands cannot be sold and would always remain the property of the heirs to the relevant matai [chiefly] title.

Similar pressures are being brought to bear in American Samoa, where collective customary land ownership still prevails. American Samoa’s 56,000 inhabitants are US nationals but not citizens. They can live in mainland United States and serve in its armed forces, but not vote in US elections, nor work in government jobs reserved for US citizens.  Moves to win full birthright citizenship rights have been met by the US government counter-claim that if citizenship were to be granted, all the laws of the United States would have to apply in American Samoa, which would mean that special laws protecting customary ownership of land would be overturned. More than 90% of the land in American Samoa is under customary communal tenure.

It is not difficult to see that Samoa may become one of the focal points in the deepening military conflicts between China on the one hand and the United States and its allies, especially New Zealand, on the other – just as New Zealand itself will be caught up in this conflict. But the development of capitalist economic and social relations in Samoa also brings into clearer view the class that will have the final word in these conflicts – the newly-emerging working class.


*   The islands of Samoa, principally Savai’i and Upolu in the west and Tutuila and the Manu’a islands in the east, which share a common language and culture, were the scene of a prolonged and violent rivalry between Britain, Germany, and the United States for control over the islands in the late nineteenth century. The islands were valued by these powers principally as coaling stations to serve their expanding naval power in the Pacific. After an imperialist-provoked civil war, the three powers reached an agreement under which Germany took possession of the western island of Savai’i and Upolu, while the United States took Tutuila and the Manu’a islands in the east, and in return for dropping its claim, Britain took over some German possessions elsewhere in the Pacific and Africa. At the opening of the First World War, New Zealand seized the German colony, and ruled it until Western Samoa won independence in 1962, after a long and militant anti-colonial struggle. In 1997 Western Samoa changed its name to Samoa. Its population today is just under 200,000. The eastern islands remain the United States possession of American Samoa.

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