‘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.