Introduction One of the Paciﬁc economies' distinctive characteristics is the informal sector's signiﬁcant contribution to growth and employment. The informal sector is broadly characterized as "unregistered and/or small unincorporated private enterprises engaged in the production of goods and services" (ILO 1993). Typically, informal business operations are small scale, without contractual arrangements and division between capital and labor, and generate income and employment exclusively for the persons concerned. In this analysis, the informal sector includes subsistence agriculture. Subsistence workers account for a signiﬁcant proportion of total employment in developing member countries (DMCs) of Asian Development Bank in the Paciﬁc (Table 1). They constitute more than half of total employment in the Federated States of Micronesia, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, and Vanuatu. The sheer size of subsistence employment has at least two implications. First, the informal sector essentially serves as a natural economic shock absorber. It allows workers to exit the formal sector temporarily and, rather than being unemployed, earn subsistence income. Therefore, low unemployment rates in some Paciﬁc DMCs (e.g., Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, and Vanuatu) should be interpreted with caution because it may mask a high incidence of underemployment. Secondly, the informal sector's disproportionately large role in the labor market poses a pressing challenge to sustainable growth and development in Paciﬁc DMCs. Subsistence workers have no access to employment protection and external credit, and are ﬁnancially vulnerable to shocks. Except in Papua New Guinea, there is no legislation recognizing the informal sector's contribution to subsistence employment in Paciﬁc DMCs. The absence of legislative and policy frameworks to systematically address subsistence labor development hampers improvements in overall labor productivity and business operations. Table 1: Contribution of informal sectors to employment Country Employment ('000) Unemployment (% of labor force) Subsistence workers ('000) % employed Year/Source Cook Islands 6.2 8.2 0.1 1.8 2011 Census Fiji 369.3 6.9 8.3 22.5 2010-2011 EUS Kiribati 28.0 30.6 7.8 27.7 2010 Census Marshall Islands 11.1 30.9 0.4 3.5 1999 and 2011 Census Micronesia, Fed. States of 31.3 16.2 16.4 52.4 2010 Census Nauru 3.1 23.0 0.1 4.1 2011 Census Palau 8.4 4.1 0.2 2.0 2012 Census Papua New Guinea 2,713.1 6.4 1,112.4 41.0 2009 HIES Samoa 40.7 5.7 14.5 35.6 2011 Census Solomon Islands 220.0 3.2 170.7 77.6 2009 Census Timor-Leste 284.2 3.6 198.5 69.8 2010 LFS Tonga 30.2 1.1 8.6 28.6 2011 Census Tuvalu 4.2 16.3 1.8 43.0 2004-2005 HIES Vanuatu 108.9 4.6 65.0 59.6 2009 Census EUS = Employment and Unemployment Survey, HIES = Household Income and Expenditure Survey, LFS = Labor Force Survey. Note: This policy brief adopts the International Labour Organization definition of subsistence workers as "workers who hold a self-employment job and in this capacity produce goods or services which are predominantly consumed by their own household and constitute an important basis for its livelihood." Source: ADB estimates based on latest population and housing censuses, household income and expenditure surveys, and labor force surveys. Analysis Declining importance of the informal sector The contribution of the informal sector to total gross domestic product (GDP) generally declines as an economy develops (UNESCAP 2007). Rising demand results in more economic opportunities, allowing more businesses and workers to move into formal market-based operations. Therefore, the formal sector’s crowding out of the informal sector is not surprising; it is part and parcel of economic development. Since formalization of an economy signiﬁes more effective taxation, government regulations, and social security systems, it should be deemed as a step toward higher levels of economic development. In the Paciﬁc, this is illustrated by the Cook Islands, where the informal sector accounted for approximately 3% of total GDP in 2012 (down from 6% in 2001) (Figure 1). Comparing informal sector and overall growth shows that the declining share of GDP could be attributed to the relatively faster growth in the formal sector. The informal sector generally underperformed vis-à-vis the overall economy by 0.4%, on average. As the formal economy grows, more labor is usually reallocated toward the formal and away from the informal sectors. Figure 1: Informal sector shares and growth GDP = gross domestic product, lhs = left-hand scale, rhs = right-hand scale. Notes: (i) Informal sector includes subsistence GDP in agricultural sectors; (ii) GDP growth is measured at constant prices and on a year-on-year basis. Sources: The Cook Islands’ Ministry of Finance and Economic Management and Tonga Department of Statistics. However, the decline in the informal sector can be stalled or reversed by adverse economic shocks. In the case of Tonga, civil disturbances in 2006 drove a temporary expansion in the informal sector. With a subdued formal economy, businesses and workers resorted to informal activities to generate income. The role of the informal sector as a hedge against economic shocks is illustrated by the steady growth in informal sector output while the overall economy contracted. More recently, the informal sector’s share in GDP has been declining as the economic situation in Tonga steadily improved. The case of Fiji further highlights possible impacts of political and economic disruptions on the size of the informal sector. The 2006 military coup, the country’s second in a span of 6 years created signiﬁcant uncertainty in the business and economic environment. Heightened uncertainty suppressed private investment, and likely pushed some businesses and workers toward the informal sector. The relative size of the informal sector increased slightly from 14.3% of GDP in 2005 to 15.4% in 2011. Comparing formal and informal contributions to GDP by sector further underscores the expansion in informal activities during the period of high market uncertainty (Figure 2). The largest increase was in agriculture, where the informal sector’s share of sector GDP increased from 23.6% in 2005 to 33.3% in 2011. Wholesale and retail trade (23.1% to 30.7%), personal and household services (24.6% to 29.0%), and manufacturing (21.9% to 26.0%) also saw notable shifts toward greater informal sector output. The economic disruption caused by the coup depressed domestic demand and may have caused smaller formal businesses to cease operations. Further, political and business uncertainties reduced private investment, including foreign investment, thereby limiting the opportunities for any large new business ventures. Figure 2: Formal vs informal sector gross domestic product by economic activity in Fiji F$ = Fiji dollar. Sources: ADB estimates based on Fiji Bureau of Statistics data. Figure 3: Formal vs informal sector employment by economic activity in Fiji Note: Subsistence workers refer to those who are not paying Fiji National Provident Fund contributions, including those with both money and subsistence income and those with only subsistence income. Source: ADB estimates based on Household Income and Expenditure Surveys and Fiji Bureau of Statistics. The expansion in informal sector output is also mirrored in the labor market (Figure 3). Data from Fiji’s 2004–2005 and 2010–2011 employment and unemployment surveys allow for a crude measure of informal employment—the number of workers who are not paying Fiji National Provident Fund contributions. Using this simpliﬁed measure, the share of informal employment edged up slightly from 57.1% of the total in 2005 to 58.4% in 2011. While informal sector shares in employment declined across subsectors, the rise in the number of subsistence workers in agriculture was substantial. The increase in informal agriculture employment is almost double the net decline across all other sectors. Thus, subsistence agriculture appears to have absorbed not only former industry and service workers but also the bulk of new labor market entrants during this period. This highlights the “natural economic shock absorber” role, in particular, of informal agriculture. Engaging in informal agriculture activities allows workers to support their livelihoods through subsistence or small-scale production for sale during times when employment opportunities in the formal sector are limited. Periods of economic crises or prolonged uncertainty can therefore push workers to the informal sector, at least temporarily, until they return to formal sector work when conditions normalize. Conclusion While informal sector output and employment can be expected to decline as an economy develops, episodes of economic uncertainty and stagnation can stunt the increasing formalization of economic activities. The case of Fiji highlights the importance of developing and maintaining a sound business environment to sustain a transition from informal to formal sector activities. As Fiji prepares for a return to representative government, policy transparency and predictability is seen to improve and this should reinvigorate private investment and formal sector activity in general. The transition from informal to formal sector activities, in principle, is an encouraging sign of economic development. The formal sector is typically more productive than the informal. It is also subject to government taxation and social security contribution, thereby making the overall economy more conducive to sustainable growth. Nevertheless, this trend implies that the formal sector, particularly the private sector and small and medium-sized enterprises, will become much more crucial to job generation than ever before. To ensure that formal sector growth can be translated into job creation, it is essential that appropriate labor laws and regulations are implemented, sufficient social and employment provided, and private sector development in policy agendas advocated. Resources International Labour Organization. 1993. Resolutions concerning statistics of employment in the informal sector adopted by the 15th International Conference of Labour Statisticians. January. UNESCAP. 2007. Improving employment opportunities in Paciﬁc island developing countries. Small Island Developing States Series. No.1. Fiji. Related link Policy Brief: Informal Sector Growth and Employment in the Pacific (originally published in the Pacific Economic Monitor July 2014) Ask the Experts Aekapol Chongvilaivan Senior Economist (Public Finance), Public Sector Management and Governance Sector Office, Sectors Group, Asian Development Bank Aekapol Chongvilaivan is a senior economist (public finance) at ADB. Through ADB’s lending and technical assistance, he supports the governments in Southeast Asia in public finance management (PFM) policy and reforms, including tax reforms, medium-term fiscal planning and budgeting, and public debt management. He joined ADB in 2013 through the Young Professionals Program and has working experience in ADB’s Southeast Asia Department, Pacific Department, and Strategy and Policy Department. He was a country economist in ADB's Philippines Country Office. He holds a PhD in Economics from the National University of Singapore. Ruth Francisco Consultant, Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department, Asian Development Bank Follow Ruth Francisco on Rommel Rabanal Senior Planning and Policy Economist, Strategy, Policy, and Partnerships Department, Asian Development Bank Rommel Rabanal specializes in public sector management as well as economic and policy analyses in small island developing states (SIDS). His professional experience includes nearly 15 years spent working on macroeconomic surveillance, economic analysis of investment projects, policy-based operations, and broader development issues, most extensively across the Pacific islands. Asian Development Bank (ADB) The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance. Follow Asian Development Bank (ADB) on Leave your question or comment in the section below: View the discussion thread.