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Mining Workers or 'Opportunist' Tribesmen?: a Tribal Workforce in a Papua New Guinea Mine [1].


This paper looks at the formation and working of a 'green mining workforce' in a Papua New Guinea (PNG) mine. It describes and analyses a group of tribesmen whose entry into the modern wage-earning workforce has resulted from the establishment of a large mining project in their area. The Porgeran tribesmen [2], of the Highlands of PNG have embraced the concept of monetary employment and quickly assimilated into the mining work environment. However, their admission into wage employment has been achieved through a series of personal and workplace challenges, as anticipated of any transitory workforce. The paper discusses those challenges and also takes into consideration the views and perceptions of non-Progeran mining workers towards them. Hence, one of the major objectives of this paper is to address the transformation of this tribal people into a modern wage-earning workforce. It concludes by identifying possible avenues for anthropological studies of such groups of people to record their peculiar perception s of, and attitudes to, an alien but promising new alternative to their subsistence life style.


Anthropology has recently brought the miner into its main scope of study. However as Godoy (1985:199) states, anthropological works examining miners and their work still lack a coherent framework. The somewhat scattered literature documents diverse aspects of the impact of mining on the various groups of people where projects are located, particularly in non-western countries. Some of the earlier anthropological works (Richards 1939; Gluckman 1941, 1961; Epstein 1959) examined the deleterious effects of migration upon indigenous patterns of political leadership and production especially around the Zambian copperbelt region. Nash's (1979) work on the connection between ritual, ideology and production among Latin American peasant miners has taken on classic status. There is also a substantial literature on the transformation of African tribesmen by the mining industry into a skilled and cohesive working class (Bates 1971; O'Meara 1975; Perrings 1979; Partpart, 1983). Similarly, there has been work done on Abori ginal tribal people in the Australian mining industry where their culture and way of life in the context of wage labour have been the focus of research (Sharp and Tatz 1966). However, studying tribal peoples' association with mining work has emerged only very recently in modern ethnography of PNG (Hyndman 1987; Polier 1994, 1996). In PNG, medium and large scale mining has recently emerged as an economic phenomenon enabling overseas enterprises to exploit the mineral deposits with a largely tribal 'green workforce' in some hinterland areas, but also has become a significant force in bringing unprecedented social and economic changes to the local inhabitants.

The country has now four large world class mines (Ok Tedi, Misima, Porgera and Lihir excluding the now 'abandoned' giant Panguna copper mine on Bougainville island [3]), and a handful of medium-sized mines in operation or about to be developed. Mining has had a direct impact on the local economies of those mostly subsistence farming tribesmen who inhabit some of the remotest parts of the country where these mines and explorations are located. Being hosts to the projects alone has given most of these previously isolated communities with relatively little experience of wage labour, access to employment opportunities and a link to the larger economy and society, national and international. But anthropological studies of the 'green workforce' in the mining context in PNG are few. [4]

Given this gap in the literature, the limited aim of this paper is to discuss some observations on a group of tribesmen who have been recently brought into a mining workforce as a result of the establishment of a major mine in their area. The Porgeran tribesmen, who are hosts of and work for PNG's Porgera gold mine, have substituted wage labour for subsistence labour in just a matter of a decade. Their response to this challenging reorientation, the alien arrangement of work, and its impact on their lives, has been an ambivalent one.

I start with a description of the historical and cultural background from which the Porgeran workforce emerged and also review some events that directly influenced both the formation and shaping of an increasingly Porgeran dominated mining workforce. Second, I discuss Porgerans' attitudes concerning mining employment and the changes in their lives, and the perception of Porgerans by others in this context. The discussion is supplemented by the author's observations on the Porgeran workers' productivity and their views on unionism at the mine. Third and finally, I conclude that although most of the Porgerans may be seen as 'opportunists' in seeking employment, in their sudden entrance into wage employment, they have nevertheless profoundly embraced the mining labour market making their once small isolated community now an integral component of the country's emerging modern economy.


Numbering some 10,000 and occupying the second largest district in the Enga province, the Ipili speakers of the Porgera valley were exposed to the gold economy as early as the 1930s through a continuous stream of white alluvial gold miners visiting their area. Some Porgerans were employed as labourers by individual miners and subsequently by mining companies. It was the individual miners who first introduced the people to a cash economy where labourers were paid cash with which they purchased goods from a tradestore often owned by an alluvial miner. This led them to develop a taste for western products. Over a period of thirty years the Porgerans have been getting used to a continuous supply of trade store goods and cash to the local community (Smalley 1983; Banks 1993:7; Biersack 2000).

Nevertheless, prior to the development of the mine, subsistence agriculture remained the predominant activity and major source of livelihood for the bulk of the Porgeran people. Soil infertility and the frosty climate of the Porgera region have prevented Porgerans from venturing into other cash crops such as coffee. Those Porgerans within the vicinity of the goldfield made a gradual shift away from subsistence activities and saw gold mining initially as a 'second garden'. This produced inequalities in access to cash-earning opportunities in Porgera where only some places have access to gold (Banks 1993; Jacka 2000). Despite the emergence of a local monetary economy, a lack of education and motivation coupled with isolation have seen a very low number of Porgerans migrating out to other parts of PNG.

As the PNG government approved the Porgera mine development plan in 1987, the Ipili people saw that as heralding a new era of modernisation for them. They eagerly awaited the mine, which they expected would generate much needed economic benefits. The overwhelming feeling of the Porgerans including people from Lagaip area was in contrast to the other Engans who wanted the mine contingent upon the developer investing in the Province's various key infrastructural projects such as roads, hospitals and schools. The latter view was based on the fear that the other four Enga districts would miss out on the expected benefits from the Progeran mine and only a comprehensive social assistance package from the developer was to put them on equal footing with the Porgerans in the vicinity of the mine (Samson, 1991). But for the Porgerans there was going to be no strings attached to mining on their land provided they received maximum benefits, both in employment opportunities and business spin offs.

However, local perceptions of the mine reflected limited knowledge and comprehension of what was to be involved (Imbun 1998:6). The technology, scale of operations and resultant social impact of the mine were beyond the scope of Ipili knowledge and experience. Social impact studies (Jackson 1986; Wohlt 1986) noted that there were numerous instances of misinterpreting the adverse social changes that were to be generated by the mine. Many anticipated access to alcohol and prostitution as good 'as long as it did not cost much'; some viewed the influx of outsiders to the project as 'good' also but, 'only if they are our relatives' (Pacific Agribusiness 1987:56). The failure to grasp the destructive potential of the mine was coloured by the expectation of numerous compensation handouts and other instant and long term benefits the mine was going to provide the Porgeran community. The same lack of comprehension was also experienced by the Wokapmin of Ok Tedi mine where they perceived educational and health faciliti es as beneficial but had no idea of the substantial impact it was going to have on their way of life (Hyndman 1987:30).


The lack of development of a cash economy coupled with these developed expectations posed a real problem for the relationships between the mine and local people. When Porgera Joint Venture (PJV), comprising four equity partners and managed by Placer Niugini (a subsidiary of the Canadian company Placer Dome), wanted to commence construction on the Progera project in 1988 it was faced with a 'recruitment dilemma' that quickly became a stumbling block to the smooth construction and eventual operation of the mine. The virtual non-existence of a local labour market presented a problem. The Porgerans generally were illiterate because of both isolation and long neglect by any level of government and thus only a poorly developed education system existed. An earlier consultancy report pointed out that 'there will be few candidates from Porgera available to compete not only for the construction period but also for the mine workforce in 1991' (Pacific Agribusiness 1987:12). Accordingly, the majority of these positions w ere inevitably to be filled by people from other areas of PNG.

However, PJV found that to recruit mainly non-Porgeran labour would cause much resentment within the local community. Already Porgerans through the Porgera Landowners Association (PLA) and other public rallies had made evident their dislike for what they called 'intruders' (other Papua New Guineas) into Porgera. They asserted that because the project was on their land, they took that opportunity as a stepping stone to advance 'ourselves' and to be where 'others' (other Papua New Guineans) are (Enga Nius 10/6/91). On a lesser scale but also of concern to PJV was the fact that the rest of the Enga people also voiced similar sentiments and, if denied employment, some of them vowed to take the law into their own hands and 'block off the highway' (the lifeline of the project) which brought all the project supplies from the city port of Lae. The threat in the lead up to the 'recruitment fever' had some credibility because the 600 kilometre road had to pass through some populous areas of the province to get to Porg era. The magnitude of this recruitment problem was particularly serious given the fact that the vast majority of the 200 000 Enga people have negligible experience of wage employment. Unemployment in Enga (and other areas of the country) has been relatively high, partly because of restricted opportunities and lack of employment incentive, especially for its young school leavers (McGavin 1993:16). The uneasiness of the tribesmen can be understood as Porgera presented one of the rare opportunities for them to acquire cash income and thus the envied western consumer goods that are in great demand in the country. These sentiments then directly influenced the call for a more preferential employment policy for Porgerans and Engans.

As a direct response to PJV's employment and recruitment dilemma, and also to the urgent need for a uniform national policy on the distribution of benefits from major mine developments, the Porgera Development Forum (PDF) was established. The 'development forum' was a national government initiative to deal with the negotiation of all major mining and petroleum projects, and was incorporated as such into the new Mining Act of 1992. In this case Porgera was the first mine to formally go through this pluralist style of mine development negotiation policies on the anticipated distribution of the benefits of the mine. The PDF served as a negotiating mechanism, because it was largely devised as a response to pressures from the Enga Provincial Government. However, the institution of graduated employment preferences (i.e. local community, then province, and then the rest of PNG) was already an established feature of mineral development policy before the negotiation of the Porgera project. For example, in Bougainvill e, Ok Tedi and Misima the different managements maintained a consistent employment policy where local areas were exhaustively searched for potentially skilled manpower requirements before they shifted their recruitment attention to rest of the country (Imbun 1998). The PDF called for amongst other things, preference in employment, training and business spin-offs to be given to local people. It was a significant policy for the benefit of the resource developers and the local community. For the former, 'the policy provided an economic inducement to substitute cheaper local labour for workers from other regions of PNG and, to a lesser degree, for expatriates' (Imbun 1998:5).

The mine began operation on a fly-in/fly-out system where mostly skilled Australians and New Zealanders commuted from Cairns, North Queensland and alternated between 21 days of work at Porgera and a return for 14 days rest. For the non-Porgeran national workforce the same commuting arrangements applied where they relied on both air and road transport depending on the proximity of their province of origin to Porgera. The Porgerans had to commute daily to the mine from their villages and had very little or no access to living camps shared by non-Porgeran employees of the mine. The camps were mostly single accommodation units.

There was clearly a strong economic incentive for the company to hire Porgeran and Engan workers rather than recruit from outside the province, provided other things were equal. This in a more important and sensitive way also met the demands of the local people who wanted preferential hiring policy on the grounds that it was their lives, culture and environment that were more affected by the adverse impacts of the mine development. Further, above all, they were the traditional owners of the mining lease land and, therefore should be 'looked after' more than others (Porgera Agreement 1989). The preferential hiring also served as a security measure to minimise local dissatisfactions which might erupt into various acts of disruption, sabotage, or violence adversely affecting the safe and efficient operation of the mine. In fact, the preferential employment policies were products of the 1989 Porgera Development Forum (PDF) between the mine stake holders (Porgera land owners, National Government and Enga Province Government) (Porgera Agreement 1989). So, for the existing mines (like Ok Tedi and Misima) PDF policies only served to legitimise the tacitly held affirmative employment policies. Now in Porgera's case subject to normal commercial and operating requirements, priority was to be given in order to Porgeran landowners, other people from the immediate mining area, people from the (Enga) province and finally to other Papua New Guineans.

In fact, there were concerns expressed on the ethnic affirmative employment policy by some sections of the literate PNG population. Some legal and academic observers labelled the affirmative action employment policies as 'overtly segregative policies' which would create a 'them' and 'us' type of relationship between landowners and non-landowners in an already volatile country. They saw the policies as a dangerous precedent, which would deny many non-landowning people access to employment. Furthermore, they warned that any inconsistency in the distribution of wealth from resource projects could be contradictory to the 'Eight Aims' (of the State's Development Policies) which stand for equal participation in job opportunities by all Papua New Guineans. They mentioned the potential of a repeat of the Bougainville experience where 'outsiders' were referred to as 'redskins' by 'blackskin' Bougainvilleans, contributing to the prolonged discontent on the island. In turn, the critics of the PDF called for criteria wh ere balance in job allocation from resource projects is maintained to ensure landowners and non-landowners have equal access especially to the mining and petroleum labour market (Post-Courier 6/8/89).

Despite the concerns, Porgeran labour was obtained by means of a systematic recruitment program, which PJV used to facilitate the advancement of Porgeran tribesmen in the mine. A register of Porgeran applicants was maintained (as expected) where a Porgeran with the required skills was given preference over others. Some of the Porgerans who ended up being recruited were those who could understand and communicate in Tok Pisin language which is spoken at workplaces in the country. This was done on the understanding that the tribesmen were to be placed next to qualified non-Porgeran or expatriate workers where they would 'learn on the job'. They were to become truck haulers and operators of heavy equipment, welders, motor mechanics, lubemen, rotary-drill operations, diamond drillers, laboratory assistants and road maintenance workers.

In 1989, and the following year, (as Table 1 below shows) more than a quarter of the workforce of over 3000 were indeed Porgerans during the three year construction phase.

Table 1 shows the number of employees by their ethnic origin for the two full years of the mine s construction. Porgerans comprised a significant portion of the entire workforce in that period. Porgerans accounted for 32% of a total construction workforce of 2058 in 1989 and 30% the following year of a slightly smaller total workforce. But they were still the single biggest group of employees during the construction period. Yet not everyone in the Porgeran composition of the mine workforce was a Porgeran. There was an increasing representation of non-Porgerans, who were seen and referred to as 'other' Porgerans, who actually made up one third of the Porgeran mine workforce composition. They gained employment entry to the mine through bribery of Porgeran elders and company recruitment officials and in a few cases, quick marriages to Porgeran women occurred in order to qualify for a job. Whatever means they used to pass as Porgerans, these job opportunists were often under pressure to maintain the 'other' Porg eran label by continuously making payments in money and kind to genuine Porgerans. Most of the Porgerans were unskilled workers but the 'other' Porgerans did mainly skilled jobs.

Although the figures do not show it, very few Porgerans achieved grade ten education, which would have enabled them to fulfil jobs as heavy equipment operators, clerks, and store attendants which require basic communication skills. Such was also the case amongst landowners of Panguna and Ok Tedi copper and gold mines earlier where only several could do semi-skilled jobs, while most of them were relegated to peripheral, unskilled wage-earner roles (Bedford and Mamak 1976a; Hyndman, 1987:32). Despite the lack of skills, the figures indicate PJV's preference for Porgerans.

Most Porgerans faced a lot of challenges and problems as they confronted the industrial work milieu with its own peculiar demands and expectations for the first time. Their skill handicaps became obvious as mine contractors met the recruiting procedures with mixed reactions. In an effort to boost efficiency and to finish their work on schedule contractors brought their own skilled workforce, and in some cases recruited nationals. Where there was a need for Porgeran labour for mostly skilled work the contractors imperfectly applied the mine's employment policy. They recruited anyone who claimed to be a Porgeran provided they had the necessary skills and experience. Increasingly this opened up an avenue for 'other' Porgerans to use trade and marital connections with the Porgeran people in order to get jobs.

The data also show a strong presence of Engans in the workforce followed by other nationals and expatriates. The Engans, in general, were skilled. They took advantage of the skill deficiencies of the Porgerans and made up 34% of the total workforce in 1989 and 1990 respectively. The nationals comprised a total of 350 workers in 1989 and in 1990, 486. Most of them were brought in by the contractors but PJV employed some. The expatriates comprised 353 out of the 2058 strong workforce in 1988. The next year they numbered 113, giving an annual turnover rate of 7%, as most of the construction work was completed. All were recruited in line with the company's recruitment policy. The high turnover rate of expatriates and other nationals at the end of 1988 in both areas of construction was obvious as most of them left after the completion of their designated work. Porgerans and Engans actually joined or remained in PJV's workforce as it was preparing for the mine's operations in late 1989.

A lack of skills has not been the only problem. Not used to heavy industrial work, Porgeran employees also found great difficulty in keeping pace, and some of them went home early when their meager diet could not sustain them for long hours. Constant complaints from both contractor foremen and PJV personnel on Porgeran work performance highlighted problems with punctuality, absenteeism, and productivity. What seemed to be the Porgeran workers' odd behaviour often led to unfavourable perceptions and ridicule (Imbun 1999:6).

Porgerans' work behaviour cannot be attributed solely to poor nutrition. Unfamiliarity with formal work requirements and the need to adjust to the strictures of a structured work environment created difficulties. Also, many Porgerans lacked the economic motivation to work as a result of the huge compensation payouts (Banks 1994:12, 1996). [5] Such a halfhearted attitude to work was not surprising as studies done on similar groups of first time tribal industrial workers saw the 'usual' problems of productivity, absenteeism and turnovers prevalent, at least in the first few years of their employment (Lawrence 1971; Tonkin 1966). However, despite the initial challenges and problems encountered at the workplace, the Porgeran workers have shown initiative, competence and the ability to work in a heavy industrial work setting. Physiologically, they have withstood the stress of industrial work and would now be much the same as nationals or expatriates with comparable experience . The latter may have the upper hand because of better early diet and industrial work experience, but the difference is negligible.

After some six years it was already obvious to see the remarkable formation of an emerging Porgeran working class made up of formerly subsistence agriculturalists. This achievement can be partly attributed to PJV where employment and training have favoured Porgerans over others. While the company filled the requirements for skilled labour by recruiting nationals and expatriates, for the bulk of the operational and administrative jobs, the company has established a comprehensive training program for its Porgeran workforce. Most of the training has been the usual on-the-job training given by fore men and supervisors. Group training has been the most successful form. Difficulties were experienced earlier in employing female trainees because of the lack of basic education and also because of fears in some Porgeran villages that relationships may develop between them and non-Porgeran workers. Despite the reservations, secretarial and cleaning work have become popular for female Porgerans. For the Porgeran tribesmen an apprenticeship scheme has seen them move onto areas such as truck hauling and heavy equipment operation. As for the young scholastic students, a scholarship scheme has assisted them to further their education at colleges and universities in the country . Their return to the mine has significantly boosted the Porgeran numbers in the mine workforce.

The 'Porgeranisation' of the workforce has created a backlash from some sections of the mine workforce. There have been complaints about the mine's 'overtly segregative (employment) policies' and allegations of 'discriminatory practices' by both the mine's non-Porgeran workforce and the public (Interview 10/11/96). Those most likely to be replaced were non-Porgeran manual workers as Porgerans took on the jobs after understudying them. Given the explicit employment favouring Porgerans over others, non-Porgerans did not go far with their complaints of discrimination and even the very skilled non-Porgerans had a reason to be apprehensive of their jobs. The Porgeranisation of the workforce has also begun to affect the mine's key technical and administration jobs, which just a few years ago, were the exclusive domain of non-Porgerans.

When the author was last there in late 1996, Porgeran tribesmen made up a significant 40% of the little over 2000 strong workforce and were seen in every facet of the workforce. This was a direct result of both the affirmative employment policy of the mine and the Porgerans' commitment to becoming part of the monetary workforce. The evidence of the Porgeranisation of the mine workforce is reflected in Table 2 below.

Table 2 shows the first six years of the mine's operation. As expected Porgerans dominated the mine's operation workforce. The large presence of some 343 expatriates and 300 other nationals resulted from recruitment carried out by the mine to begin Stage 1 of the Stage 4 expansions in the mill, maintenance, underground mine and engineering departments in order to triple the mine's output. Technical expertise of the kind that was required for the expansion was not available in the country.

In the second year (1991) of the mine's operation Porgerans again constituted the biggest ethnic group in the workforce and this became the trend in subsequent years as mainly Porgeran trainees and others from the construction workforce joined the operations workforce. In contrast there was an attrition rate of 7% as mainly expatriates and nationals left after the completion of Stage 1.

The Porgeran segment of the workforce grew at an average of 5% annually followed by other nationals 3% while Engans and Expatriates registered a decline of 2% and 3% respectively. Conversely, in real terms, there were significant increases in employment in some years, for example in 1993 expatriates totalled 466 which was higher than in the previous and subsequent years. Engans totalled 332 in the same year but an attrition rate of 7% per annum was apparent. The data show a strong trend towards the Porgeranisation of the workforce as more and more Porgerans 'relocalised' jobs held by Engans and other national workers.

In 1992 Stage 2 commissioning began with the engagement of more expatriates who were there to construct and man autoclave and pressure oxidation technology, which had not been used in PNG previously. The next year the workforce totalled 1841 with an additional 254 workers as the mine began Stage 3 expansion which involved the construction and management of the Suyan township.

The number of Porgerans in the workforce steadily increased, whereas other ethnic groups slightly declined between 1994 and 1996. The mine's Stage 4 which was the last expansion stage started in 1994 was completed the following year. This stage saw more other nationals recruited to construct the Anawe crushing circuit and Tawisakale grinding circuit. In 1996 the total workforce stood at 2100 of which Porgerans accounted for 42% followed by other nationals (32%), expatriates (14%) and Engans (12%).


The earnings from this new and growing employment have become visible in Porgeran villages with the erection of permanent houses and entrepreneurial activities. The Porgerans' on-going strong motivation and commitment to wage employment have stratified the once egalitarian society, and altered their attitudes and perceptions of their lives and drawn them to commercialism and its values.

This section of the paper is based largely on interviews conducted in 1996 on a group of local Porgeran (numbering some 120 workers, see Table 3) and non-Porgeran workers, including some of the expatriate management personnel of the mine. Given the inaccessibility and problematic logistics of the mine site, the interviews were largely unstructured and interviewees were hand picked from the author's prior experience with some of them on previous assignments; the rest were merely approached in the mine site and around Porgera town for the purpose of this study. The author interviewed a total of some 200 workers including Porgeran villagers. They were part of the 877 strong Porgeran component of the mine workforce of some 2100. However, a more structured methodology using questionnaire survey was deemed inappropriate because a significant number of manual workers were semi-literate and there was a real possibility that they would misunderstand the questionnaire. Also an attempt by another researcher to circulat e questionnaires to workers about local attitudes to work and reward in the mine was a failure when the majority of the potential interviewees did not cooperate with the researcher.

Questions were asked on Porgeran perceptions and attitudes to mining employment, work performance, other workers and trade unionism. In tandem for a balanced account of the Porgeran workers, interviews were also held with non-Porgeran workers and senior expatriate supervisors to find out about their view of Porgeran workers' behaviour at the mine. Some of the ethnographic material is synthesised and some directly quoted. The author's aim is to indicate something of the rich tapestry of attitudes and perception as a tribal society is transformed into a mining workforce.

For the Porgerans, the advent of wage labour brought about by mining seems to have partly supplanted subsistence forms of labour. The testimonies tell how committed they are to maximising the opportunities presented by the Porgera mine and, therefore to their jobs as the vehicle to enhance personal expectations and material possession. On the other hand their ambivalence to mining employment is evident in the class context of both rentier and workers. In the former capacity they are delicately conscious of their tribal ownership of the land on which the mine operates and in the latter they are also workers like the rest. As will be seen the double class situation in which the Porgerans operate sometimes puts them in a very awkward position where their interests are not identical with the rest of the workforce.

However while views on employment varied amongst many Porgeran workers interviewed, one thing was certain: they all wanted to continue to supply their labour to the mine. All of them want to remain as working class. Nevertheless Porgerans' opinions on the mine are also influenced by their personal situation -- their rentier position, their associated material accumulation or their educational achievements. For the convenience of this paper the various responses can be examined under three broad but different worker categories: 'grassroot' Porgerans, 'bisnisman' and 'saviman'.

Grassroot Porgerans

Grassroot Porgerans, as they like to call themselves, distinguish themselves from the privileged businessmen and educated Porgerans. There are about seventy of them (see Table 3), mainly illiterate workers, who happen to be employed on the mine, primarily because of their demonstrations of eagerness and Porgeran origin. Many of them hail from the vicinity of the mining lease and the status as owners was sufficient to gain them a job in the mine. Because they did not possess any high standard of administrative and technical knowledge and skills they were seen as mere 'opportunists' in the workforce. They represented a large portion of the Porgeran share of the mine's workforce, and occupied most of the cleaning, security and general labouring jobs. They viewed employment as the single most important avenue which has opened up social and economic opportunities they never dreamt of fulfilling in their lifetime. The grassroot Porgerans particularly liked their jobs and wages and the impact it was having, especial ly on their social status in the villages. In fact, fifteen of them were over fifty years old and part of the emerging 'Ipili elite' (in both Porgera and Paiela areas) whose wages only went to supplement the big royalty and compensation payments they were receiving annually from the company, as a result of mining activity on their land. Some of them did not hesitate to boast about their newly acquired economic assets and social status. 'Look at us', said one of the two elderly men to the author, 'we are the Ipili "big men"; we now have three wives each, three vehicles and two trade stores; all because of PJV'. 'Several years ago', joined the other, 'we were just men (alluding to them having one wife each) but, now (with added emphasis) see what a big difference that 'rock' (pointing to the open-cut mine) is making to our lives' (Interview, 21/12/95). There were similar positive views echoed about the social and economic changes that were occurring in and around Porgera by mainly grassroot Porgerans. They were at times very quick to credit those developments and their scale and rapidity to the presence of the mine.

All this is rather surprising for a group of tribesmen who have only been involved in wage employment for a matter of a decade. 'We want to keep working', said a Porgeran young man, 'until the ores are exhausted and they shut the mine'. Although they have not become generally committed workers in the strictest sense, where one's livelihood is dependent on the job and therefore one becomes a permanent member of an urban or industrial workforce (Kerr et al. 1960), they did show a strong desire to work for the mine for many years. This is in some contrast to views of other similar groups of workers in PNG. For example, in a study of urbanisation in Bougainville, Bedford and Mamak (1976a:125) found that a large proportion of the illiterate Bougainvillean workers in the Panguna copper mine and other urban centres on the island, expressed the lowest degree of commitment to work. They considered their involvement in wage employment to be peripheral, while attending to cash cropping and entrepreneurial activity in t he rural areas to be of primary importance. A similar view was held amongst a majority of migrant Highlands workers in Port Moresby who saw themselves as 'temporary target aimers' on skills and resources for eventual utilisation of them back in the villages (Strathern 1975:14). There seems to be a slight difference between the grassroot Porgeran mining workers and those who have the view of the 'semi-committed' urban workforce. The grassroot Porgerans have very few other avenues to earn cash and they are unlike the Eastern Highlanders (Finney 1988) and Tolais (Salisbury 1966) who were frequently unwilling to work on local plantations because of many entrepreneurial opportunities in their villages. Another factor responsible for grassroot Porgerans' commitment to industrial work would be the high wage paid by the mine and the fact that their convenient location within the vicinity of the mine enables them to rotate freely between two phases of lifestyle. But for the uncommitted workers studied elsewhere in PNG geographical isolation from their place of origin made their wage employment temporary and they had little intention of becoming a permanent part of an alienated urban workforce. [6] As with all workers in PNG, neither the Porgerans nor the 'semi-committed' workers are willing to easily abandon their village based identity.

Although the grassroot Porgerans may seem to be part of the country's emerging national workforce, because of their skill deficiencies and entrenched tribal life, they did not see themselves getting another job after their mine shut down. Many of them rightfully thought of remaining in the village and continuing with their daily life. As was observed their engagement in employment was largely because of a quickly developed desire for modern consumables which only money could buy, a phenomenon experienced by other PNG workers in workplaces around the country. Bedford and Mamak's (1976b) study of workers in various PNG towns and Imbun's (1995) study of a group of Engan workers in Bougainville mine unanimously agree that the unending supply of imported consumer items (such as radios, TV sets, cars and others) and the pressures applied by relatives and tribesmen to share their earnings were some of the reasons motivating them to continue with their wage employment. The accumulation of such modern material wealth has helped pave the way for many grassroot Porgerans to enhance their status to 'bigmen' positions and therefore have influence in their villages.

Bisnisman Porgerans

The next group claimed to have an interest in both wage employment and their own economic pursuits, particularly small-scale business enterprises. Also part of the Porgeran working class this was a very small but significant group. The thirty workers interviewed were bisnisman Porgerans and found in all classes of occupation, from the unskilled to those employed in senior positions in the mine (see Table 3). They were easily observable in their taste for luxury items like four wheel drive landcruisers, pick-up trucks and ownership of recently built corrugated roofed houses which were more visible in the villages. Further, they were likely to get preferential treatment from PJV in getting new spin-off contracts and management assistance. Drawn mainly from the immediate village surroundings of the mine and Porgera town, their income from the mine was supplemented with money derived through participation in other economic ventures. Their businesses ranged from running trade stores, workshops and petrol stations, to operating bus services and raising chickens. These were operated mostly by their immediate relatives. But the most profitable enterprises were those contracted to the Porgera mine whose needs were diverse including construction, transportation, laundering, catering, cleaning and security.

Although when asked why the bisnisman Porgerans were still working for PJV as they could spend that time running their own businesses, some of them responded aptly that leaving the mining job was suicidal to their newly acquired economic and social well being. 'How could we dare to cut the umbilical cord that feeds us', said a landowner Porgeran businessman and PJV employee abruptly. Another two said that attached to their jobs was a sense of pride and 'ownership' of the mine rather than allowing strangers (non-Porgerans) to take advantage of their absence (Interview, 15/12/95). The enterprising Porgeran workers had a commitment to work, and they also saw their mining job as an economic and social security that they should protect in order to maintain their newly acquired status in the community. Apart from that the strong attachment to their jobs was also explained by the very mixed performances of their business which mostly were unprofitable. The life span for most Porgeran businesses was not more than fo ur years, as a result of a myriad of factors including lavish spending on personal items, bride price, compensations payments to tribal fight victims, election expenses and poor management (Banks, 1994, 1996). It was therefore wise for most of the bisnisman Porgerans to see their future in their continued working for the mine.

Saviman Porgerans

The third group consisted of better-educated Porgerans whose views on employment and general outlook of life were more divorced from the grassroot and bisnisman Porgerans. They formed the Porgeran middle class and their perceptions and attitudes differed markedly from the rest of the Porgeran population. As a result of their educational attainments and employment as accountants, engineers, and geologists in the mine, they often attracted the tag 'saviman' ('knowledge' man) Porgerans, a reference average working and non-working Porgerans proudly greeted their tribesmen with. Imbun (1995:53) found that Engan university and college graduates working for Panguna copper mine were seen as 'elites' by the rest of the Engan workers and the general population in Bougainville. In the Porgera case, although very small in number, (about twenty interviewed, see Table 3) the saviman Porgerans in their prime working age saw wage employment as the sole source of a cash income. Bedford and Mamak (1976a:18) described some Boug ainvillean wage earners as embracing a similar 'proletarian strategy'. But unlike their counterpart bisnisman, the middle class Porgerans had very little intention of investing their earnings in village economic activities. In fact, a few of them have previously attempted some sort of a business enterprise in their respective villages. But as one remarked 'it wasn't worth it' because, (apart from the cited obvious reasons), the constant undue pressures from relatives for assistance and handouts were too much of an 'obligation' to bear (Interview, 13/12/95). In their mining work they wanted job stability, but also desired mobility in their jobs so that they could go and work in other PNG mines. But the desire to belong to the country's already emerging workforce was evident when they talked of sending their children to the best schools in the country so that they could end up like them.

As can be seen from the data in Table 3, the percentage of saviman Porgerans is 10% of 1996 total mine workforce of 2, 100. In fact, overall Porgerans had some 877 jobs (see Table 2). It is anticipated that there would be a steady increase in the saviman category of the Porgeran workforce when apprentice, college and university graduates of Porgeran origin join the mine workforce. It is also anticipated that there would be a gradual decline in the other two worker categories, particularly the grassroot worker category as semiskilled Porgerans would lose their jobs due to rationalisation and other mine restructuring programs.

While the saviman Porgerans had all the features of a modern working middle class several of them had polygamous marriages. They were caught between 'traditional' status aspirations and those of a new elite. To them marrying more than one wife was one of the features which cemented their elitist position in the Porgeran community, while the possession of western education and skills also enhanced their employment opportunities in the emerging modern society. Despite the challenges and expectations both lifestyles brought, the middle class Porgerans zealously consolidated and guarded their positions, which they saw as a mark of the new elite.

Like the rest of the Porgeran views on mining work, the saviman Porgerans wanted to stay in the jobs as long as the mine lasted. They numbered just under 100 and for a population, which had a low educational level at the start of the mine construction, it was a significant achievement. But as any modern middle class workers would have, their commitment to work also had an inherent fear of losing their jobs due to the mine's restructuring and cost-cutting measures. Some who have undertaken on-the-job training complained of a lack of comprehensive training that would make them re-employable when their job disappeared (Imbun 1998). However, it seems a justified concern, coupled with the ethnic, wantok based exclusion rife in PNG (just as people try and exclude others from their mine, so they too can be excluded) and the country's general experience of the instability of the cash economy and of world market price fluctuation. On the other hand, there were labour market opportunities not only in mining but also i n petroleum projects and in other sectors of the economy. People with some sort of technical skills and experience were able to look for jobs despite the 'imposed' and inevitable obstacles.


Despite some of the positive impact the mine has brought, most Porgerans in one way or another have complained of social and other upheavals that they have witnessed. They reflected on the adverse impact of the mine, in producing inequalities in a formally egalitarian Ipili society and attracting a lot of visitors, mostly strangers from far and wide who came to try their 'luck,' either looking for job opportunities or selling betel nuts and other goods to the Porgera town residents and villagers. The uncontrolled movements of these strangers and the development of a group of restless young Porgerans have led to an increasing rate of sexually transmitted diseases, family breakdowns, tribal fights and general break down in law and order in and around Porgera. Not confined to Porgerans, for communities where mining is located in PNG, this has become a bitter experience. In Ok Tedi, as Hyndman (1987:30) points out the Wopkaimin people complained of inequalities, social upheavals involving heavy beer drinking, fig hting and adultery which were threatening what seemed to be their once egalitarian and peaceful lives. Similarly the Nasioi people around Panguna copper mine were concerned that they were having a 'growing dependence on money and the commercial system' which was making them less self reliant (Connell 1991:59).

In the case of the Porgerans, they too have not been well prepared for the impact mining was going to have on their lives. Apart from the usual social and economic impacts generated by the mine, their most immediate worry was that the undue pressures and responsibilities of local expectations had become just too much to handle. The pressure to engage in polygamous marriage, buy four-wheel drive trucks, build trade stores and permanent houses, and run for political offices were part of the emergence of a new Ipili 'big man' brought about by the massive and sudden influx of wealth from the Porgera mine.

A 'big man' system, built around the accumulation of wealth through polygamy, extensive network of trading partners, and personal charisma has not been a feature of Ipili society until recently. Recently elevated grassroot, bisnisman and saviman Porgeran big men were anxious about the obligatory challenges they had to fulfil from time to time. Their inability to control their wives was a notable admission a few of them expressed (sometimes) with a sense of humour. 'My big son' (who has his own three wives) called me a 'half-man', said a fifty-five year old grassroot Porgeran, 'because I can not manage my (two) wives'. Despite the huge responsibilities, there was always a perceived pressure to become a 'big man' amongst the many Porgeran mining workers. Particularly, most saviman Porgerans saw their jobs as a stepping stone to consolidation of that status.


Although the Porgerans were eager to be part of the mine's workforce, their workplace behaviour and performance were often neither impressive nor acceptable to the mainly expatriate line management and other national workers. This became obvious as soon as they were drawn into the mine's workforce. It was during the construction and early period of the mine's operation that the general work performance of Porgeran workers began to be marred by a series of covert problems ranging from absenteeism, displaying of 'peculiar' work behaviours to high labour turnovers. Constant complaints from contractor foremen and managers on Porgeran work performance referred to poor punctuality, absenteeism and low productivity. Not used to keeping pace with the workforce, some Porgerans went home early when their meagre diet could not sustain them for the tedious and long hours (Expatriate foreman, interview, 11/6/1995). What seemed to be the Porgeran workers' odd behaviour often led to unfavourable perceptions and ridicule fro m rest of the workforce. The company kept no comparative data for non-Porgeran workers, but sporadic withdrawal from mining work and unwarranted absenteeism involving grassroot and bisnisman Porgerans was serious (Imbun 1997).

In my research two reasons for the erratic labour history of Porgeran workers during the construction phase of the mine emerged clearly. First, easy money coming from huge compensation pay outs by PJV to mine lease landowners and other spin-off earnings encouraged a lot of Porgerans in a half-hearted approach to mine work at the time (Banks, 1993:15, 1996). Second, the contrast between the new mining workplace and very different rhythms of village work arrangements generated frustrations and dissatisfaction on both sides. Porgerans being unaccustomed to industrial work, and to the discipline and mores of the mine, left their work when they wished, to the frustration of their supervisors. Their ability to stand a full day of heavy and tedious industrial work was tested with their meagre diet of sweet potato and some of them left work whenever they felt hungry (Interview, 6/11/95). But as the mine settled down, the accommodation to the new workplace and arrangements was evidenced by a significant drop in absen tee rates for Porgeran workers. The change resulted out of the evaporation of other payments and the provision of a free heavy lunch for Porgeran workers by PJV. Additionally, the drop in rates of absenteeism by mainly grassroot Porgeran workers was also due to the fact that there was a decline in the number of less skilled jobs (i.e. security guards, gate keepers etc.) as the mine went from construction to operation. Although differences in absenteeism still remain among mainly grassroot and bisnisman Porgerans and other workers, it is not as marked as in the mine's construction period.

There have been several cases of a conflict of attitudes to employment at Porgera mine. A promising young Porgeran with just six months to go in his diamond drilling apprenticeship scheme left the mine against his supervisor's advice and eloped with a woman to Port Moresby to sell buai (betel nuts). Similarly, another Porgeran gave up his well paid job in the community relations section of the mine to become a driver of a bus carrying fee-paying passengers to Mt Hagen return, which he saw as more appealing and mobile than the 'static' and stressful job he found himself in. There were other similar cases of Porgerans leaving good jobs for an apparently inferior one for no obvious reason to an outsider.

A local kin and exchanged-based culture has also had an effect on Porgera work practices . Not used to working under a managerial system of worker-employer relationships grassroot Porgerans especially had a tendency to think of work as belonging to those who had immediate authority over them and not the mining company. The formalisation and hierarchization of authority in the hands of layers of management and the routinisation of work was both complex and in conflict with Porgeran values. For example, an Australian foreman in the warehouse and supplies section of the mine told the author that Porgerans' and others' productivity at the workplace was mediocre when his relationship to them remained at a formal level which allowed him little interest in them personally apart from their work credentials. But after working in the mine for some three years it became evident that everyone was punctual and worked hard when he showed an interest in their domestic problems and began to know each worker on a personal le vel. He said the Porgerans and some nationals were comfortable in taking their domestic problems to him and he had to be seen to accommodate their pleas for an extra day off, or other requests in order to build and maintain a 'conducive' work environment. Another expatriate, who was a supervisor in the underground section of the gold mine, mentioned that supervision of workers was through direct control by supervisors and foreman. Both his and accounts from other supervisors suggested that maintaining direct control was often in conflict with the flexible and 'casual' approach preferred by workers. He mentioned another supervisor who was arrogant and acted in a formal and sometimes bossy way in overseeing workers. This supervisor came to realise that some of the workers deliberately slowed down in their work as a way of getting even with him because he was seen as a 'bad boss'. It was common for frictions to develop between supervisors and workers which one of them termed 'unpleasant encounters', while some d eveloped into industrial disputes with a section of workers calling for the removal of 'bad' supervisors and managers (Interviews, 12/12/95; Hess and Gissua 1992).

To PJV, it became obvious that performance of most grassroot and bisnisman Porgeran and some Engan workers varied according to the 'appeal' and temperament of their supervisors. Hence, the senior management in meetings advised the managers, supervisors and leading hands to acknowledge this fact and maintain a less rigid way of controlling and overseeing the workers. Also these experiences motivated PJV to maintain a cautious and selective approach in its appointment of supervisors, particularly expatriates, encouraging them to be flexible and personally involved when it came to dealing with first time industrial workers (Imbun and Morris 1995).

However, the 'learn-to-work' problem has not only been for expatriate management and Porgeran workers to handle but has also been an issue in relationships amongst the diverse Papua New Guinean workforce. Below the level of nationality, PNG is one of the most heterogeneous societies in the world and every individual worker at Porgera and other mines displays some kind of behaviour that reflects their cultural and regional origins. At every workplace including plantations and factories , national supervisors and crew leaders had to struggle at first to stamp their authority on their crews. Lawrence (1964) found many first-time plantation workers only felt comfortable working with and within their own ethnic or regional groups than under a 'strange' crew leader with whom they had very little in common. Colonial planters characteristically had their crews organised around those groupings. This 'wantok' orientation has also had its effect on mining workplaces, posing problems for national supervisors and crew le aders. In the case of Porgera, particularly during the construction period of the project, keeping Porgeran workers under non-Porgeran workers' control became a nightmare as they deserted their crew and joined a leader they knew to be of Porgeran origin. Used to working with a small team of tribal members in independent local communities, some of the grassroot Porgeran workers were said to be more comfortable working with someone they knew rather than a 'stranger'. They often accorded kinship terms to the crew leaders, despite having no direct relationship or even if they were from another part of the Enga province. They would say, 'we are working with our father/brother or brother-in-law', rather than 'under' their leadership that often implied. Or as they saw it, the leader was part of the group rather than its head, and his status was accepted but not his power to direct others.

This 'selective' attitude was not confined to the Porgerans. The Ok Tedi manual mine workforce in general separated into a collection of regional groups, where individual workers preferred to seek advice and guidance from wantok (one dialect speaking or tribesman) crew leaders from the same region or origin rather than from their designated ones. Telefomin and Ningerum people of OK Tedi region were known to be more comfortable working with workers from the Papua and Sepik region and would make excuses to avoid supervisors and foremen who were Highlanders who they claimed to be too 'aggressive' to work with. They would go to their own wantok crew leaders and supervisors for advice and counselling but in instances where wantok were not found, expatriate superintendents were sought. Lack of confidence in crew leadership coupled with on-going interpersonal clashes between blue-collar workers in OK Tedi often spilled over on to the social life of the mining town itself where social activities were pursued on regi onal lines (Imbun, 1992).

Evidence of actual work performance of the Porgerans employed by PJV is limited. Company records are not publicly available. The author conducted interviews with mostly expatriate supervisors and non-Porgeran workers in which Porgerans were discussed. Both non-Porgeran and expatriate workers had some specific perceptions of Porgerans, as a distinct ethnic group, at the mine. Most expatriates admired the working performance of their Porgeran workers. They talked of their (Porgeran workers') ability to learn and advance to some demanding positions within a relatively short period of time. It was generally agreed that they admired the ability and skill in doing jobs which were equal to that of non-Porgeran workers. 'It is amazing how they have caught up with the whole concept of work', remarked an Australian underground mine supervisor, 'in so short a period of time'. But at the same time they were quick to also mention reservations, especially about their conduct at the mine. Another Australian supervisor ment ioned there was no doubt of the Porgeran workers' ability and tenacity to learn and work but it was the somewhat arrogant and pompous behaviour they manifested at the mine which was sometimes distressing (Interview 8/11/95). What that supervisor referred to was 'a series of unprecedented and random' verbal and physical confrontations Porgerans had with their colleagues at the workplace. The incidents sometimes occurred out of misunderstanding of basic instructions or because Porgeran workers were sensitive to any direct or implied negative remarks, which they saw as lowering their personal status and denigrating the abilities of Porgerans in general. In one incident at the time of the author's research, a beefy and stocky Porgeran physically assaulted several workers in the mine's light vehicle workshop after one of them humiliated him for passing on the wrong tool. The Porgeran, himself an apprentice, yelled at the stunned five non-Porgeran mechanics that 'you are here at the mercy of PJV, but I am a Porgera n, you know that, the 'owner' of this mine (with emphasis). So do not look down on us because we can not think and work like you are doing. It's not as hard as you people want us to believe because we will do everything very soon' (Interview, 13/12/96). This was not an isolated incident, because there were many similar confrontations between Porgerans and non-Porgeran workers, including expatriate trainers. When such incidents happened the Porgerans would always claim the mine was 'theirs' and 'visitors' should always respect them and PJV.

In contrast to the expatriate workers' views, non-Porgerans, including Engan workers' views on Porgerans were mostly negative. There was an overwhelming attitude among many non-Porgeran workers that Porgerans were generally less efficient workers. A PJV section manager suggested that there appeared to be a growing anti-Porgeran sentiment among some section of the mine workforce, partly because of reactions against their preferential treatment by the company (Interview 12/11/95). Some of the views of these workers reflected the educational and work experience they had which many grassroot and bisnisman Porgerans lacked. 'We still regard them as backwards and that is why they can do only the basic jobs and us the far 'better' ones', a group of non-Porgeran boiler makers remarked. Additionally, there was a lot said about the general life style of Porgeran people whose recent contact with development and change was through the project. Some workers from Port Moresby, the country's capital city, mentioned that Po rgerans had very 'limited' knowledge of money. 'As soon as they get it, they spend it on booze and women, as if there is no tomorrow'. Those views were further supported by the Engan workers who saw a lot of money had been poured into the small population by the project but 'very little use of it has been made' in terms of business and other investments. Two workers from Madang, a coastal town north west of Porgera, mentioned that if it was not for the company's preferential recruitment and business policies towards Porgerans, 'They would have had the slimmest hope of being in the mine's workforce' (Interview 13/11/95). Ironically, these observations sounded like the 1950s kiap discourse about Papua New Guineans in general.

Generally, Porgeran mining workers were cynical towards non-Porgerans, including Engans (with whom they had only formal interaction at the workplace) but had special preferences and affection for only Paiela with whom they spoke two dialects of the Ipili language and Tarn tribesmen. The people of the Tarn Basin (in the neighbouring Southern Highlands Province) speak the Huh language, and share some of the principles of social organisation and notions of common ancestry which serve to distinguish them and Porgerans from the Enga-speaking majority of the Enga province. It is widely held amongst the Ipili and Huli speaking people that apart from sharing a common ancestry they also shared territories. Porgeran workers, therefore made sure that their Paiela and Tari tribesmen were better treated by the PJV mine management. There were several instances of sacked Paiela and Tan workers seeking assistance from the PLA so that they could be reinstated. This usually happened because the company sometimes had to consul t PLA elders before dismissing not only a Porgeran employee but also members of related Ipili speaking tribes. A mine foreman said, 'Porgerans literally beg the line managers for reinstatement on every occasion when one of their Paiela or Tari 'relatives' have been terminated' (Interview 13/11/95). Although such unsolicited advice was not usually entertained, Porgeran workers would at least make sure their relationships with the Paiela and Tarn workers were not jeopardised when they were aware of the troubles their fellow Ipili tribesmen were in.

However, the views of non-Porgerans and Porgerans on each other were shaped from observations rather than direct personal contact between the groups, apart from the workplace interactions. The various groups seldom socialised outside the workplace because of the mine's policy that Porgerans commute to work from the villages. Mixed social games were organised by the company but they were not frequent and personal contact was largely superficial, with seldom any display of familiarity. Non-Porgeran workers only know of their Porgeran workers at the workplace and see Porgeran villagers while taking bus trips to work from the residential camps which makes it hard for the two groups to interact after working hours. Even while residing in the accommodation camps the PJV management does not allow non-Porgeran workers to visit Porgeran villagers and vice versa. Also the mine operates on a fly-in-fly-out basis where non-Porgerans leave the mine quite often for a field break in their place. All this means that there w ere few chances for the stereotypic views held by both groups to be modified by informal interaction.


Despite the Porgeran tribesmen's quick and generally smooth journey into the world of mining work, their views on unionism have been ambivalent like their perceptions of employment. As occurred in Panguna copper mine (Mamak and Ali 1979) and elsewhere in the country (Imbun, 1998), workers who took some interest in union activities were well educated and experienced. In Porgera mine the workers who had an interest in union activities were mostly non-Porgerans, with only a small number of saviman Porgerans, who comprised the middle class. For most of the Porgerans, their attitude towards Porgera Mine and Allied Workers' Union (PMAWU, the mine's only union made up of mostly manual workers), in general has been one of apathy. In fact, union apathy was most severe amongst grassroot and bisnisman Porgerans in contrast to the saviman Porgerans, who joined the PMAWU, as they (saviman) sought employment with the mine. The former groups looked upon the organisation and any industrial conflict as inconsistent with their amicable relationship with the mine. They thus regarded the organisation as an 'opposition group' to the mine management.

The simplification by Porgerans, however, of a complex system of employment relations, in some ways was partly influenced by the expatriate dominated management of the mine. They did a lot of 'brainwashing' on the Porgeran segment of the mining workforce when PMAWU was doing its recruitment drives. It was therefore not surprising to hear antiunion remarks from the Porgerans. As a grassroot Porgeran mine gatekeeper mentioned to the author, 'why should we belong to PMAWU, which always argues, with PJV on almost everything'. Their position on unionism was also strongly influenced by them being (apart from as workers) also the rentier of the land on which the mining was taking place. Therefore their reluctance was intertwined with a fear of an unexpected closure of the mine due to a PMAWU industrial action which would 'reverse' their lives to the one they had in the past. Such sentiment was obvious when the same gatekeeper said they do not want to ask for more from a company that has brought them to that stage ( in development). It is a fear based on some earlier PJV community awareness campaigns on some important areas of the mine operations in which union activities were represented as detrimental to the operation of the mine. It was therefore, not surprising to see that most grassroot and binisman Porgerans were PJV 'supporters' and saw most saviman tribesmen (who were members of PMAWU) as 'traitors and back-stabbers' to their allegiance with PJV (Interview 12/12/96). It was a class difference of which grassroot and bisnisman Porgerans were unconscious. As for the saviman Porgerans, belonging to a union and taking part in union activities was integral to their employment relationship with the mine.

The company knew very well that the Porgerans and other people in the local area saw the mine as a blessing and that its activities were welcomed and it was determined to quash any worker organisation that was going to alter the

thinking of its local employees. The PJV also believed that it was the non-Porgeran workers who were interested in unionism and other avenues, which would alter the Porgeran workers' impression of the mine. Reinforced by the high regard for its activities by its local hosts, the management had paternalistic views on industrial relations matters in the mine workforce. The management suspended and even dismissed workers who were thought to be encouraging local Porgerans to join PMAWU.

On the whole, PJV managed workers with very little union involvement and the exclusive top expatriate management maintained that their approach to worker control was quite consistent with the prevailing social order of Papua New Guinean society. This was demonstrated in the workplace where each sectional manager took the image of the industrial pater in charge of the tribal workers. The sectional managers discouraged unionisation and they were quite successful with the white-collar employees as they have not yet joined PMAWU or formed their own union. In the case of union activities staged by PMAWU mainly grass-root and bisnisman Porgeran workers have been taken as busters and security guards whenever a dispute involved PMAWU. A recent well organised industrial dispute by the union was effectively put to a halt because most Porgeran and expatriate workers did the jobs of the strikers which eventually broke the strength of the strike (Imbun and Morris, 1995).

Yet some of the saviman Porgerans of PMAWU have ironically become more of a handicap than an asset to the organisation. It is a familiar problem experienced by unions in PNG where the presence of one large ethnic group of workers provides an awkward problem for union leaders in attempting to respond to the diversified demands of a heterogenous workforce (Imbun, 1998). The little over 40 Porgerans who are members of the 1600 strong hold PMAWU, have become some of the most vocal members. On the other hand, their presence as an 'interest group' has challenged the organisation to deal with their 'unique' demands. The dilemma of whether to prioritise the 'unique' needs of a section of members or ignore them and adhere to its own primary role of attending to industrial issues of the entire membership has been an inherent problem for PMAWU. It has been experienced twice since PMAWU's establishment in 1991. One case in 1992 involved the Porgeran members of the union wanting the organisation to support their claim th at all Porgeran mining workers be accommodated in company camps. The union leaders, who were non-Porgerans however, refused to bring this issue to PJV, because it was well entrenched in the various mine agreements that Porgeran workers had to commute to work from their villages, and it was therefore not an industrial issue. In turn the Porgerans threatened to withdraw their membership but after much consultation by the union executives they eventually gave up on this issue. If the issue had been brought to the attention of the mine management and resolved then particularly the saviman Porgeran workers could have been accommodated in the mine accommodation camps which they envied because of meals, free laundry and other privileged conditions non-Porgeran workers were getting. This is despite the fact that the general Porgeran working population still preferred a continued village based life with a regular supply of money coming from mining work.

Similarly, the next issue involved the majority of the Engan workers, including the Porgeran workers, who wanted PJV to cease the fly-in-fly-out mode of commuter mine operation and instead put up a permanent mining town in Porgera. Although the rest of the workers from other parts of PNG were at ease with the present arrangement, they had to support the issue in a major 1994 strike because 'we were overwhelmingly threatened if we did not and we had to go with them' (Interview, 14/12/96). It seems Porgeran union members will continue to put pressure on PMAWU to take up some of their unique issues with other industrial issues. One saviman Porgeran union member said, 'it (PMAWU) is the major avenue where we can put all our worries be it political, economic, or social to PJV' (Interview 15/12/96). This problem became manifest in the PMAWU's 1993 award re-negotiation dispute when the union leadership which was ably occupied by Porgerans and Engans, incessantly advocated the permanent mining town issue, which had wide political and economic implications for the entire Enga province. This only complicated the negotiation of the narrower but more strictly industrial union agendas felt by many members to be more pressing.


Multi-national mining companies have provided a unique source of wealth and employment opportunities for tribal people in Papua New Guinea who would otherwise have remained subsistence agriculturalist on the margins of the national economy. Despite a colonial history going back to the 1930s the Porgeran tribesmen have only recently experienced rapid social and economic changes following the establishment of the Porgera gold mine. Porgerans eagerly embraced the possibilities presented by this development, in the forms of royalties, jobs and training, and they continue to do so.

In the process Porgeran society has been transformed. Porgerans have a strong sense of identity and common interest in the mine which distinguishes them from 'other' nationals. But the material goods and economic opportunities in which they are interested have reshaped the once egalitarian Ipili society and placed great pressure on them to succeed as 'big men'. Grassroots, Bisnisman and Saviman Porgerans also do have different relationships to the mine. In particular the conflicts between management and union can also divide Porgerans against each other.

While the Porgeran case may exemplify a group of opportunist tribesmen endeavouring to maximise the economic opportunities presented by the gold mine, they have also demonstrated their commitment to the mine in the way that they have become an integral part of the mine's workforce. From the management point of view Porgerans displayed much of the erratic behaviour and performance that would be 'normal' for a newly trained 'green' workforce. From the Porgeran's point of view they had to become part of an industrial routine, accept the orders of others and cope with the suspicions and insults of people they regard as outsiders on their land. Nevertheless they have learned to work. They have consolidated their position as manual labourers and their bisnisman and saviman have become part of the skilled and management workforce in the mine. The increasing importance of consumer goods in the lives of Porgerans partly explains this enthusiasm. But as important is the fact that Porgerans can continue to live on thei r land and with their kin at the same time as being part of this new workforce. On the one hand, then, Porgerans appear to be an opportunistic and ambivalent workforce whose main interests continue to lie in local village society. On the other hand they have been persistent in their enthusiasm for working in the mine and many may be on the verge of becoming part of the formal economy. Further research on 'tribal' workers in the PNG mining industry is warranted and needed before one can assess the significance of the Porgera case. What is required is a comparative study of mining workforces and places in PNG. Included in such studies should be the formal system of worker induction or other forms of workplace 'initiation' as management prepares to incorporate workers totally unfamiliar with mining or industrial work. As important is a study of the 'green' workforce's attitudes to work, their perceptions of management and the ways in which managers and expatriate workers negotiate their relationship with these g reen workers. Such studies would provide an empirical basis for thinking about the real nature of work and workplaces in PNG.


This work benefited lately from a research grant from the University of PNG (UPNG) that was used in winding up the fieldwork component. The write-up benefited a lot from insightful remarks from P.A. McGavin from the University of New South Wales, Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The editor and an anonymous referee provided input and criticism and many of their ideas are now found in this paper. I am also thankful to them. Interpretations are my own.


(1.) This paper resulted from several research fieldtrips to the Porgera gold mine (between the periods of 1994-1997) as part of the author's doctorate studies on employment relations aspects of the mine and its workers, while he was with the University of Western Sydney, Nepean.

(2.) This paper uses 'tribesmen' as a generic concept to also include Porgeran women mining workers, many of whom did domestic chores around campsites. However, they represented only a very tiny portion of the Porgeran segment of the entire mining workforce.

(3.) Bougainville mine ceased production in 1989 after a series of civil disturbances against the Australian company's activities by disgruntled landowners over insufficient benefits from the project. Subsequently the issue took a new twist when the whole island wanted to secede from PNG. The secession issue is now a stumbling block to seeing normalcy return to the island and still remains largely unresolved between Bougainvilleans and the PNG government.

(4.) Mostly the anthropological literature on PNG mining documents either general social-economic changes accompanied by the inevitable responses of social and ethnic protests (for example see, Hyndman, 1987; Filer, 1990 and Imbun, 1995) or is applied in nature, describing impacts the projects have generated on the people and surrounding physical environment (see, Bedford and Mamak 1976a, 1976b; Young 1987 and Gerritsen and Macintyre 1986).

(5.) PJV paid out over 20 million kina during and after the construction period to mine lease landowners. The circulation of this money plus spin-offs from the mine had an enormous impact on the once backwater district.

(6.) Although such was the view rural tribal migrants had at the time when wage employment brought about by rapid urbanisation was still a new concept in the 1970s, a lot has changed since then and now the current PNG urban workforce consists of a large number of workers coming from the many squatter settlements surrounding PNG's main towns, have no nostalgia for their rural villages, but view wage employment as a means to meet ends in an increasingly urban society.


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 Construction workforce employment by
 origin in 1989-1990
Origin 1989 1990
 PJV [*] Con'tor Total (%) PJV Con'tor Total (%)
Porgerans 400 260 660 (32) 302 299 601 (30)
Engans 350 345 695 (34) 319 416 735 (36)
Nationals 150 200 350 (17) 106 380 486 (24)
Expatriates 253 100 353 (17) 113 97 210 (10)
Total 1153 905 2058 (100) 840 1192 2032 (100)
Source: PJV Quarterly Reports for 1989 and 1990
(*.)PJV'S construction workforce was actually the operation workforce and,
almost all were retained with a few lay offs.
 PJV Manpower for Operation by Origin
 from 1990-1996
Origin Year 1990 '91 '92 '93 '94 '95 '96
Porgerans 302 439 481 583 698 810 877
Engans 319 236 294 332 318 287 260
Nationals 106 282 402 466 540 620 665
Expatriates 113 302 410 460 332 335 298
Total employees 840 1259 1587 1841 1888 2052 2100

Source: PJV Quarterly Reports, 1990-96.

Unfortunately numbers and percentages of Porgeran, other Engan, and other national workers at different levels of skills are not available. However, increasingly many Porgerans were skilled and occupied more white-colllar and challenging technical jobs. Porgerans particularly occupied middle management positions in the Community Relations Section of the mine which had a lot of dealings with the Porgeran local community. The Engans and other nationals did mainly skilled jobs and expatriates occupied positions mainly in the top management and technical areas of the mine.
 Size distribution of Porgerans between
 worker category, 1996
Worker Porgerans % of Porgerans workers
category (120 sample interviewees) of 2100 total mine workforce
Grassroot 70 65
Bisnisman 30 25
Saviman 20 10
Total 120 100
Source: Author interview data, 1996
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Author:Imbun, Benedict Y.
Geographic Code:8PAPU
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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