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War Economy

Labour Shortages

Labour Shortages

In spite of the substantial increases in manufacturing employment in most war years, pressure of work was so great that some of the most acute labour shortages developed here, especially in factories where women could not substitute for men.

Chart 34 shows the composition of the manufacturing labour force over the war years.

chart of labour force statistics

Chart 34

page 156

The most difficult war year for manufacturing labour was 1942–43. This was the only year when numbers employed did not increase. Male labour was at its scarcest from February 1942 through to about January 1943, while the wartime build-up in female labour did not reach a peak until 1944–45. In mid-1939 there were some 24,000 women employed in factories. The numbers increased rapidly to reach nearly 30,000 in 1941, and then increased quite slowly to 31,000 in 1944. Up to that year the wartime increase had been 29 per cent in only five years. When men started to return in appreciable numbers from the armed forces, many women left their jobs and, by mid-1946, the number employed had fallen back to 27,400.

Considerable overtime was worked in factories to ease the wartime employment situation. In 1938–39, overtime hours averaged 45 for all wage-earning males; on previous experience, this was a very high figure. But overtime increased progressively through the early war years to reach 199 hours in 1943–44, over four times the immediate pre-war level. A similar increase occurred in average overtime hours for women, which were 23 in 1938–39 and 90 in 1943–44. For both men and women, the longest hours worked were in 1943–44. This was about a year after armed forces strengths had started to recede from their peak,1 but at a time when orders for munitions, military clothing and other war stores were still in excess of manufacturing capacity.

Chart 35 shows overtime worked in factories.

With direction of labour, from early in 1942, and considerable pressure on existing staff, any unauthorised absence from work came to be regarded very seriously, and the rather offensive word ‘absenteeism’ appeared frequently in the daily papers. There were special difficulties in getting staff back to work after holiday periods. The following extracts from the Dominion of 9 January 1943 illustrate some of the more glaring, though not necessarily typical, cases:

‘Following an analysis which is stated to have disclosed that absenteeism in Wellington factories this week was very serious, employers have expressed grave concern, and it is reported that representations on the subject have been made to the Government. It is stated that the nonchalant, even defiant, attitude taken up by workers who extended their holidays without the slightest regard for the war effort has shocked the principals of some manufacturing firms. They say that the problem has reached such a stage that it can no longer be regarded with any degree of equanimity, and they are insistent that the penal regulations which deal with this class of offence must be applied. Most of the

1 Peak strength was reached in September 1942.

page 157 firms involved have been engaged wholly or partially on urgent war contracts, and the output has suffered. Women are reported to have been by far the worst and most numerous offenders, but instances are cited of male absentees, after appeals had been lodged for the retention of their services, as essential to industry.’
chart of overtime statistics

Chart 35

‘Statistics taken out for seven Wellington manufacturing firms revealed that last Monday, when work was to be resumed after the New Year holidays, there were 269 absentees, or nearly 26 per cent, out of a total staffing of 696. There was the case, cited previously, in which 74 employees out of 80 were absent from work. A clothing factory was completely disorganised when only 18 out of 130 reported for work after the holidays. By Thursday the number at work had improved to a total of 26. The factory was engaged on war work, and the position with the week drawing to a close was that 80 per cent of the employees were still absent. Another firm, which escaped lightly by comparison, had 16 per cent of its female operatives away at first, and a total of 28 absent out of a complete personnel of 200. Fifty-four employees were away out of a complement of 118 in another firm immediately after the holidays, and numbers of them had still not returned to work on Thursday. Five were men and 49 were girls. page 158 There were 160 female employees in yet another factory and 56 were absent on the first day; yesterday 15 per cent of the total were still away. Those who had returned had not been asked for an explanation, and had not offered any excuse. Of the work handled by the company, 75 per cent was military contracts. It was emphasized that with groups of employees away like that work was dislocated, as the essence of modern production methods was team work. This firm had to put up with an almost continuous rate of 7 or 8 per cent absenteeism.’

Instances of this sort must be taken along with other relevant information.1 Between 1941–42 and 1942–43, for example, there was a substantial increase in the volume of production per person engaged in manufacturing. The six years 1938–39 to 1944–45 saw an overall 29 per cent increase in volume of production and an 8 per cent increase in production per person. This was not an outstanding improvement by comparison with what was to be achieved postwar, but, taking into account wartime difficulties in filling supply gaps, in training substitute labour and in modernising plant, it hardly confirms the degree of labour deterioration suggested by the newspaper extracts.

By early 1943, armed forces strengths had started to diminish, and industry received some relief. However, demands for goods remained high and the shortage of manufacturing labour persisted throughout 1943–44. The Government, unable to satisfy all demands, gave what encouragement it could; for example, in October 1943, a Ministerial statement was reported:

‘“The process of reduction of the armed forces is not by any means finished and a steady stream of men continues to flow from the armed forces into industry,” said the Minister of Industrial Manpower, Mr McLagan, when giving figures yesterday showing the number of men who have been released from the Forces for this purpose. He said that during the period between April 1 and September 28, 1943, the total of 12,241 were released through District Manpower Offices.

‘The Minister said that in addition there had been several hundred releases through armed forces appeal boards, and further there had been a steady inflow of manpower back to industry through rehabilitation measures. This latter flow had now reached substantial proportions due to the large number of men returning from overseas.’2

1 See also p. 175.

2 Dominion, 28 October 1943.

page 159

In an accompanying analysis, the Minister indicated that over three thousand of these men had gone into manufacturing. However, the pressure for manufacturing output was very high and manpower shortage continued to be a restricting influence on production. In its 1944 report, the Industries and Commerce Department wrote:1

‘… the factor of paramount importance is manpower. There is a general shortage of skilled machine operatives in all classes of industry and this is especially noticeable in the clothing, footwear and engineering trades. Generally, factories are short of labour, causing the necessity for continued overtime.’

1 Parliamentary Paper H-44, p. 2.