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War Economy

The Worker

The Worker

The Labour Party had come into power, in December 1935, ‘pledged to restore salaries and wages to pre-depression levels, to provide employment for everyone at full wages and to shorten the hours and improve working conditions in shops and offices and on the farms, as well as in factories’.2 Some of the steps taken in this direction before the war have been outlined in Chapter 1.

One of the very early measures, on the outbreak of war, provided for the suspension or adjustment of labour legislation in the interests of a maximum war effort. Regulations made on 14 September 1939 to give wide powers to the Minister of Labour were superseded in June 1940 by even more sweeping regulations3 which included the following:

‘If it appears to be necessary or expedient to do so for securing the public safety, the defence of New Zealand, or the efficient

2 J. B. Condliffe, The Welfare State in New Zealand, p. 67.

3 The Labour Legislation Emergency Regulations (1939/167) were superseded by the Labour Legislation Emergency Regulations (1940/123). Both were made under the Emergency Regulations Act 1939.

page 448 prosecution of any war in which His Majesty may be engaged, or for maintaining supplies and services essential to the life of the community, the Minister by Order in the Gazette may suspend, so far as they relate to conditions of employment, the provisions of any Act or of any Regulations or Orders under any Act or of any Award or Industrial Agreement under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1925, or of any agreement under the Labour Disputes Act 1913, or of any voluntary agreement, and the Minister by the same or any subsequent Order may prescribe conditions of employment in lieu thereof.’

To administer the regulations, the Minister had the assistance of an Industrial Emergency Council, and, by April 1942, eighty-one Variation Orders had been issued. To give a few examples:


Provision was made for shift work.


Ordinary working hours were extended in some industries.


Additional overtime was authorised in certain industries.


Restrictions on the employment of women were relaxed in some industries.


Restrictions on the employment of young persons on dairy farms were relaxed.

The considerable reduction in unemployment by 1939 was mentioned in Chapter 1. There were even shortages of some types of skilled labour.1 These changes became quite insignificant by comparison with the complete change in the labour market over the first three years of war, culminating in the severe general shortage of manpower which is discussed in Chapters 5 and 18.

Longer working hours and more stringent working conditions had to be accepted. Some of this extra time and effort was rewarded, and rewarded generously. Some of it was given willingly without any extra compensation. The great bulk of the labour force regarded the extra effort as part of its service towards the common cause, but accepted extra pay for extra hours worked, including the penal rates which, in most industries, became payable after forty hours.2

In the exceptional cases, extra time and effort was given grudgingly, with insistence on every scrap of possible extra reward. The depleted labour force and the extra work to be done favoured groups of workers who drove a hard bargain. The rapacity of some

1 See also p. 220.

2 To summarise the position in the first two years of war, the 40-hour week was general but not universal; for example, overtime was payable after 44 hours in shops. The standard overtime rate was 1½ times the ordinary rate. Under many awards, double time was payable for overtime in excess of four hours (in some cases three hours) on any day. Generally speaking, work done on statutory whole holidays was paid for at treble time, on Sundays or other holidays at double time, and on half holidays at time and a half.

page 449 groups was matched only by the rapacity of some contractors and employers.1 But most workers, most contractors, and most employers, played their part willingly in the war effort for reasonable reward.
black and white photograph of children eating apples

free fruit in schools
Britain did not consider fruit imports essential during wartime. Special Government distribution arrangements kept the industry reasonably intact

black and white photograph of supply ship

collier leaving westport
Difficult West Coast harbours added to uncertainties in the coal supply

black and white photograph of coal mine

open-cast coal mining
Large-scale development of open-cast mining came fairly late in the war

black and white photograph of gambling

wartime racing
Trentham, March 1943. Servicemen and civilians queue together at the pay-out windows

black and white photograph of ration coupons

food rationing
Clipping ration coupons in a restaurant

black and white photograph of portable cooker

coal shortages affect the housewife
A primus stove in use on one of the occasions when gas supplies had to be stopped because of shortage of suitable coal

black and white photograph of repairing tram lines

manpower shortage in transport
Women tramway employees — Wellington, 1944

black and white photograph of viaduct

north island main trunk
The railways carried a greatly increased wartime load

1 See Chapter 13 and pp. 398 and 477. There are other examples in this volume, and in War History Branch narratives, such as No. 58, Marine Department.