In the first few months of war, the effect on industry of armed forces recruitments was not too severe. There was a pool of unemployed labour from which some of the gaps in the civilian labour force could be filled, and an attempt had been made to minimise losses from the more essential industries. The schedule of reserved occupations prepared by the Manpower Committee and adopted by the Council of Defence in August 1939 was circulated to recruiting officers. From the outset, men in the scheduled occupations were not to be accepted for service in any of the armed forces.1
Farming was not at this stage regarded as a reserved occupation and persons working on farms were accepted by recruiting officers. There were very soon complaints of shortage of labour on farms. Within six weeks of the outbreak of war these complaints became vociferous, but the Minister of Labour was not convinced.
‘The existence of a general shortage of farm labour was denied by the Minister of Labour, Mr. Webb, in an interview last evening.
‘He said that on October 13 there were 180 recorded vacancies for experienced farm workers, while the men available numbered 203. The number of recorded vacancies for inexperienced workers was 16 and the number of men available was 865.
‘“Farmers requiring labour should avail themselves of the facilities offered by the State Placement Service,” said Mr Webb. “The service has a very comprehensive organisation and operates through the Social Security Department in all country districts. Competent officers will deal with every demand for farm labour of all kinds. Where experienced labour is available every effort is made immediately to supply the demand. When experienced labour is not available, the Department is prepared to subsidise labour for a period sufficient to enable the worker and the farmer to make a success of the job. Every demand for farm labour will receive urgent attention, but I must have the cooperation of the farmers. I can assure them that, given this cooperation, their labour requirements will be met.”
‘Mr Webb said there had been criticism from various sources concerning an alleged shortage of farm labour, but when investigations had been made these charges could not be substantiated. “I want the farmers to know that any demand for labour of page 84 any kind will be attended to at once,” added the Minister, “but I do urge them to state their requirements and difficulties to the appropriate Departmental officers. I am prepared to arrange the transfer of suitable men from one locality to another as in the past. Farmers themselves realise that lack of adequate accommodation and facilities in many cases increases the difficulty of obtaining suitable labour, but whatever the difficulties may be the first step would be to inform the Department of their labour requirements.”’
Perhaps this was not an answer which would give complete satisfaction to farmers, but they certainly seem to have complained too soon. At this stage fewer than four thousand men in all had been recruited and there was still a pool of some fourteen thousand men unemployed or in subsidised employment.
Nevertheless the fact that a number of persons engaged in farming and other apparently essential industries were accepted seems to have thrown doubt on the system of screening. The list of reserved occupations was kept secret, and physically fit men who were held back because they were in reserved occupations were not advised of the reason for their rejection. Widespread misunderstandings resulted, and on 25 January 1940 the Dominion second leader picked up the complaints: