Labour for building and construction was already becoming scarce before the war. From the outbreak of war there was a gradual increase in the pressure on manpower, and by November 1941 the industry generally was working from 45 to 54 hours a week.1page 244
The entry of Japan into the war in December 1941 raised defence construction work to a high priority. We have noted that, in March 1942, a Commissioner of Defence Construction was appointed, and in the same month the building and construction industry was declared essential, so that workers could be directed into it and held in it. Powers to direct workers into essential work had been taken in January 1942. For this purpose specified categories of workers were from time to time required to register for work of national importance. The first batch of registration orders, on 18 March 1942, included one requiring men aged 18 to 70 inclusive, who had experience in building construction, to register for work of national importance.1
The Building Committees, which were established in each district, had sub-committees to deal with the allocation of labour, but it was the District Manpower Officers who had the power to direct labour to the industry, and whose approval was necessary before labour could be released.
In March 1942, also, an order was made requiring the working of a minimum 54-hour week on defence works,2 but, as we have seen, this very drastic requirement for working hours lasted only until June 1942, when hours of work were reduced to 48.3
Wherever possible, normal public works and local authority construction work was postponed during the war years, especially when defence construction was at its height. Road works, in particular, were held over, but so also were land improvement, railways construction, and construction of public buildings. Considerable numbers of men from these works became available for the armed services or for essential work, including defence construction work.
Chart 52 shows changes in the numbers of men engaged on defence works, including those employed by contractors.
Between the 1936 and the 1945 population censuses the numbers of men engaged in the building and construction industry fell from 47,700 to 43,900, confirming the National Employment Service estimate that it had one of the largest wartime losses of manpower. However, the decrease in employment on roadworks alone was greater than this inter-censal fall, and it must be remembered that roadworks before the war included an element of unemployment relief, and that, with the increased use of mechanised equipment, labour requirements for this type of work were decreasing rapidly.
1 The Building and Allied Trades' Workers Registration Order 1942.
2 The Defence Works Labour Legislation Suspension Order 1942.
The building and construction industry returned to award conditions in August 1945, when the order requiring a 48-hour week was revoked.