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:
‘Protests have been made in various parts of the Dominion against the secrecy observed by the Government regarding the reserved occupations from which volunteers for the Forces must not be enlisted. It is not suggested that the reserved occupations decided on by the authorities have been unwisely selected, but in order to remove any doubt or uncertainty it is desirable that the public should be fully informed as to what is going on and the reasons for the decisions reached. A great deal has been heard about the necessity for maintaining farm production at the highest possible level as an important part of our war effort. Yet in spite of the admitted shortage of experienced farm labour recruits are being sought among farm workers. There appears to be something inconsistent in this. It is true that there has been talk about filling the gaps on farms with men from relief works, but how many of these stop-gap workers are skilled farm hands? Probably very few indeed.
‘There was some trouble a few days ago among slaughtermen in the north who wished to enlist, and were rejected on the ground that they were engaged in a reserved occupation. Their work as slaughtermen was regarded as more important to the page 85 country than their service in the fighting forces. In given circumstances this view might be the correct one, but apparently there was room for difference of opinion on the point. How is a sound judgment to be formed by the public if they are kept in the dark as to the policy which is being pursued, and the reasons for it?
‘On the face of things there can be no good grounds for making a mystery of the occupations from which men cannot be spared for military service. On the other hand, the very fact that secrecy is observed over such a matter is bound to give rise to comment and is liable to occasion doubts and distrust not at all helpful to recruiting.’
But the Government refused to be drawn, and the list of reserved occupations remained secret. On 14 February Deputy Prime Minister Peter Fraser was reported as saying that enlistments ‘were treated on merit, and men who occupied key positions in industry would be told that they could not go away till they could be replaced. There was to be no exempted industry, but men might have to be told that if the fate of industry depended on them, they could not be spared.’1 With this the public had to be content.
No doubt the lists of reserved occupations served a useful purpose by giving some protection to essential industries in the early stages of war. However, it was a little absurd that, while a worker in a reserved occupation could not join the armed forces, there was nothing at this stage to prevent him from taking a new job in a non-essential industry.2 While the list of reserved occupations was in use, it resulted in postponement of service for some 3000 men, mainly farm, engineering and factory workers.3
With the appointment, in September 1940, of District Advisory Manpower Committees for hearing appeals against military service, the list of reserved occupations was dropped. A list of ‘highly important occupations and industries’ was substituted, but each case was to be treated on its merits. The onus was now on the employer to lodge an appeal where it appeared that a man should not be withdrawn from industry. The Director of National Service could also appeal in the public interest.
Armed forces requirements still increased and the number of men held on appeal in important industries grew larger. More attention had to be given to finding replacements for fit men who were in key positions in industry, but who were required for the armed forces.page 86
As the forces took more men, protests from industry mounted. The Government was put under increasing pressure to give a blanket protection to specific industries or occupations. Whether the requests came from employers or from workers, it returned the same reply. No industry or occupation would be permanently reserved; each case would be dealt with on its merits. This position continued until early in 1942.