Finding suitable jobs has been the greatest challenge for Koreans in New Zealand. The small number who arrived before 1991 tended to have higher employment rates and incomes than later immigrants. Those who arrived in the early 1990s when Korea’s economy was booming were unwilling to take just any job. Failing to find work in their areas of expertise, some established small businesses with their own funds. The income from these enterprises often augmented earnings from investments.
In 1996 over 50% of Korean immigrants in New Zealand were either underemployed or unemployed. By 2001 the employment rate had risen, but those in full-time work were still mainly engaged in small-scale businesses serving the Korean community.
Professional workers also focused on the community: there were real estate agents, lawyers and bank employees all catering for Koreans. Popular ethnic businesses were grocery stores, travel agencies, restaurants, and souvenir shops for Korean tourists. In the mid-1990s some immigrants serviced a short-lived boom in the Korean tourist market. The boom ended in 1997 when a foreign exchange crisis rocked the Korean economy. In the 2000s the popularity of tourism has been revived and the influx of Korean tourists is strong. In terms of per capita spending per day, Korean tourists are among the highest. Although numbers declined after 2007, Korean visitors remained the seventh largest ethnic group holidaying in New Zealand, with over 41,000 people visiting during 2014-15.
Labour force changes
In the early 2000s many Koreans were in the process of settling, while in the following decade many Koreans had settled down. In 2013, 56% of Koreans were in the labour force, up from 46% in 2006. Having spent more time in the country, the 1990s wave of immigrants and their children (by then in their 20s and 30s) were working in professional jobs as teachers, accountants, lawyers, dentists and doctors. In 2013, 21% of Koreans were in professional occupations and 16% were technicians and trade workers. 24% were managers, indicating that a high number of Koreans were self-employed.
Meant for bigger things
Alex Kim was a marketing manager for Chanel cosmetics in Seoul. Arriving in Auckland in the early 1990s, he opened a shop called The Sweet Factory. He then moved to Whangārei, where he helped found the Immanuel Church. ‘I was trying to purchase a lobster factory … but God had a different plan for me. He wanted me to come here and set up the church.’1
In the 2010s businesses began to serve the wider community. In Auckland, Korean greenhouses and market gardens were supplying the city with vegetables. Laundries and dairies sprang up in urban areas. Some Koreans who had moved north to Whangārei became involved in businesses such as sawmilling and golf driving ranges.
In 2013, 23% of Koreans were engaged in accommodation and food services. This included owners of restaurants and motels. Some establishments accommodated Korean international students. The second-most popular industry was retail trade, which accounted for 16% of the Korean workforce. The percentage of Koreans engaged in these two industries was far higher than that of the Asian New Zealand population and New Zealanders in general.
Although the number of Korean international students fell from 17,500 in 2007 to 7,879 in 2014, they have contributed greatly financially to the Korean community and New Zealand economy.