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War Economy

Conscription for Industry 2

Conscription for Industry 2

From the beginning of 1942, the workers' freedom to move from job to job and to bargain for conditions of employment were more and more restricted. In industries which had been declared essential, restrictions were placed also on the rights of employers. There was increasing use of the new power to direct workers to essential industries, and, in most cases, permission of a District Manpower Officer was required before any person could leave an essential industry or be dismissed from it.

In some of the key industries, where labour problems were particularly difficult, special arrangements were usually made. For example, in the transport field, the Waterfront Control Commission Emergency Regulations 1940 provided for a Waterfront Control Commission with very extensive powers, including the employment of labour, and the fixing of terms and conditions of employment and rates of remuneration.

A total of 176,000 direction orders was issued: 138,000 to men and 38,000 to women.3 Directed workers lost their freedom to move out of an essential industry, in much the same way as freedom was lost by their counterparts in the armed services. There is no doubt that a good number of cases of hardship arose out of these direction orders, but the Government took what action it could to make the system operate as fairly as possible. Workers directed to essential industries were restrained from seeking more remunera- page 451 tive employment. Because they would suffer if there were periods when work was intermittent, steps were taken to protect their rates of pay. In September 19421 the Minister of Labour was given power to fix minimum weekly wages, which were to apply provided the worker was available for work in the week concerned. The minimum would apply in cases where there was no award, but another important effect was to protect the worker in an essential industry against loss of pay where there were reductions in the length of the working week, except where ‘he was absent from work on account of sickness or on account of any circumstances within his own control.’ The minimum rates were fixed in October 1942 at £5 10s. per week for men, £2 17s. 6d. for women, and £1 15s. for juniors. The order applied with suitable safeguards to all essential undertakings.

Though it was avoided as much as possible, workers had sometimes to be transferred into lower paid jobs in order to staff an essential industry. The principle was accepted that the loss of earnings should not fall on the individual worker concerned, and financial assistance was usually given by the Government.

Direction of workers into industries which were not of their own choice naturally led some to hang back. It was not uncommon to find a number of workers absent from work, especially following a holiday period. The term ‘absenteeism’ was applied to this type of slackness and a good deal of public feeling was aroused against it. There is no doubt that some workers did indulge in abuses of this sort, but it is equally true that some critics applied the term ‘absenteeism’ to any absence from work, no matter what its cause, and became quite unreasonable in their outlook. Take for example the following extract from a leading article in a Wellington daily:2

‘… In May of last year when a special emergency regulation was introduced in an attempt to cope with the evil, the Minister of National Service (Mr Semple) issued an explanation of the measure, which rather than emphasising an intention of the Government to eradicate absenteeism was almost apologetic in tone. “It was not intended,” he said, “to penalise the loyal and willing worker who might perhaps have an isolated absence. The penal clauses were designed to deal with the deliberate defaulter and the person who was habitually or persistently late for work.” …. The question of distinguishing between the deliberate and unintentional cases might well have been left to the Courts. By introducing such distinctions when speaking of page 452 the Government's intentions the Minister displayed a weakness (and left a loophole) which, no doubt, was appreciated by the slacker group….’

The leading article goes on to mention that, after the New Year, various manufacturing concerns ‘reported that absenteeism ranged from 26 per cent to 80 per cent of the total of their hands.’ Here it should be mentioned that early January is traditionally a holiday period in New Zealand, and, for many single workers directed into new localities, this was their only opportunity to visit their homes. Not until August 1944 did workers in general become entitled to a paid annual holiday of two weeks.

Some employees took all the latitude they could, but some employers were equally unreasonable in refusing to give leave of absence. Most workers complied gracefully with direction orders and worked well; and were treated considerately by their employers.

2 Some aspects of direction of labour are dealt with more fully in Chapters 5 and 18.

3 Up to 31 March 1946.

1 By an amendment to the National Service Emergency Regulations 1940.

2 Dominion, 29 April 1943.