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Payroll error sparks riots in PNG, killing 22

By Jack Campbell | |5 minute read

A payroll glitch has turned deadly as police walked off the job due to a payroll error, sparking riots across Papua New Guinea.

The police strike, beginning on Wednesday (10 January), erupted into violent riots which have claimed the lives of 22 people. The country has since declared a state of emergency, with 1,000 Defence Force personnel on standby.

The capital, Port Moresby, and the second-largest city, Lae, have fallen victim to widespread looting, shooting, and arson. Several properties were damaged in the chaos. ABC News reported that 15 were killed in Port Moresby and an additional seven in Lae.


The incident began after a demonstration by public service workers – including police officers – protested a payroll error. It is reported that some workers weren’t taxed correctly, leading to underpayments. The absence of police made way for the rioting.

“This was an oversight by government payroll people … to those businesses who faced losses today, government took note of your losses, we apologise and we shall look at a tax relief measure to recover some losses,” said PNG Prime Minister James Marape.

“As a result, the absence of police presence led to riots and looting in certain parts of our city. I appeal to people in these centres to realise that this is our country, and we have to take ownership of it.”

This payroll error may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, as BBC reported that “the unrest follows wider tensions in the Pacific island nation over rising costs and high unemployment”.

Most of the rioting has been suppressed. However, Mr Marape noted that tensions are still high. In the wake of the unrest, there are calls for the Prime Minister to resign, as six other members of parliament have already stepped down.

While this is undoubtedly an extreme example of the importance of payroll, incidents like these riots show just how important it is to get this process right. There are workers who live week to week, and even the slightest error can put a family into debt.

As noted by Tracy Angwin, Australia Payroll Association chief executive, in a recent episode of The HR Leader: “I’m yet to meet any HR leader that relishes having payroll in their portfolio. It’s one of those things that if no one thanks you for getting payroll right. But crikey, do you know when it’s wrong.”

The risk involved in getting the process wrong may not spark riots, but it can severely damage a company’s reputation and sow discontent among its employees.

“There’s risk everywhere. Obviously, there’s financial risk. There’s risk with the regulators, and there’s also cultural risk. People ask me, how does payroll affect culture? And they don’t understand it. But anyone who’s not paid people correctly or missed the pay will actually figure out pretty quickly how that affects keeping our people happy. We need to make sure the payroll is right,” commented Ms Angwin.

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.