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War Economy

Special Manpower Assistance to Farmers

Special Manpower Assistance to Farmers

The farm labour problem was now becoming difficult and, with increasing pressure for extra food production, the Government gave such assistance as it could, consistent with maintaining its defences against possible invasion. At harvesting time, when labour requirements were at their peak, an arrangement was made for farmers to draw men temporarily from the Armed Forces. These men remained under military discipline, and the harvesting became in effect a type of army operation. Ten thousand men were used in this way in the 1941–42 season, and eight thousand in 1942–43. This arrangement looked after the most difficult seasonal peaks for labour on farms and enabled recruiting for the Armed Forces to be carried on in spite of the rising pressure for extra food production. By the end of 1942, the Japanese drive in the South Pacific had been stopped, and it became possible to reduce the home defence forces. Farming again received favoured treatment; up to the end of March 1943, sixteen thousand men were released from the home defence forces, and of these over half were farm workers.

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Special arrangements were made, also, to put women on farms. At the 1936 census, 7000 women were engaged in farm work. To meet wartime labour difficulties an attempt was made to find extra women to work on farms. However, in the early stages of the war, the farmers were not ready to receive them. They considered the work unsuitable for women and objected to women receiving the same wages as men. By the end of 1941, with male labour becoming much harder to find, these difficulties were overcome, and a Women's Land Corps was formed. Initially, in the effort to satisfy the farmers, the wages and conditions of work were not made sufficiently attractive. In June 1942 the Corps had only 146 members and was unable to find recruits for known farm vacancies. In August 1942 conditions were improved, and the name of the organisation was changed to ‘Women's Land Service’. By the middle of 1943, some 800 women were employed and, by March 1944, the number had increased to nearly 1900.

University students and senior school pupils also assisted as vacation workers. During the 1943–44 vacation, it was arranged that the universities should resume at the beginning of April instead of the beginning of March, so that students could help at the peak of the season. In addition, the Education Department agreed that senior school pupils should be allowed to work for an additional month after the normal holidays.

Throughout the 1943–44 season, farming continued to receive manpower assistance in various ways, though it still had to contribute a share towards the manpower requirements of the New Zealand forces overseas.

Though a great deal was done to assist with farm labour difficulties over these years, some farmers do not seem to have been particularly co-operative. The experience of the National Service Department in 1944 is illustrative and worth quoting in full from the Department's 1946 report:1

‘By the beginning of 1944 the demand for foodstuffs and other farm products by the United Kingdom and both the American and New Zealand forces in the Pacific became so great that it was decided to bring back those men of the Third (Pacific) Division who would volunteer for farming or other selected essential work.

‘It was estimated that 7,000 men could be absorbed by the farming industry, and plans for the return of Third Division personnel to meet this estimate proceeded accordingly. At the same time action was taken to obtain returns of actual labour

1 Parliamentary Paper H-11a, Report of the National Service Department, 1946, p. 36.

page 194 requirements from farmers. The response by the farming community was slow and disappointing.1 Although farmers' organisations had been stressing the acuteness of the labour shortage, and despite intensive publicity, applications for these men were notified to the Department in dilatory fashion. Applications totalled only 107 as at 28 April 1944, and this figure increased to 973 by 10 May 1944, and 1,713 by 26 May 1944. At this point the quota to be released from the Third Division for farm work had to be revised in the light of applications received, and reduced to 5,000. As late returns from farmers continued to come to hand the vacancies notified increased to 3,337 by 30 June 1944, and 4,504 by 31 July 1944. The labour needs of the farming industry as notified were fully met, and at the end of November 1944, 4,286 of a total of 9,100 men released from the Third Division were working on farms.’

Throughout all these vicissitudes, farming was never declared an essential industry. It is perhaps an indication of the strength of the farmers as a pressure group that, in spite of their receiving so much manpower assistance, they were able to avoid the preliminary step which other industries had to take of being declared essential. Essentiality would of course have placed obligations on the farmers themselves, and what actually happened was that they received the benefits of essentiality without accepting its special obligations.

Some of the reasons why the farming industry did not wish to be declared essential were stated by Mr A. P. O'Shea, Dominion Secretary of the New Zealand Farmers' Union, in November 1943. In replying to criticism by Mr R. C. Clarke, Chairman of the Auckland District Council of Primary Production, he said:2

‘To those who are fully conversant with the position here, it is obvious that Mr Clarke has spoken either without a complete knowledge of the facts or else without fully appreciating that the question of declaring farming an essential industry has been fully considered a number of times by the Farmers' Union and the National Service Department in consultation. There has always been unanimous agreement that to have farming declared essential would not work. In the first place it should be pointed out that it is difficult enough to get satisfactory work from the man who is kept unwillingly in secondary employment; the position would be impossible in farming. If a dairy farm hand was kept at that work against his will he could wreck a herd in an incredibly short space of time. There is the further point that, in the majority of cases, farm hands live with the farmer and his family. To compel

1 In fairness to the farmers, it should be added that the men were to become available at a time when farm labour needs were not seasonally high. (Author's footnote.)

2 As reported in the Dominion, 16 November 1943.

page 195 a man who was unwilling to do so to stay on a farm under these conditions would give rise to an intolerable position. What Mr Clarke should realise is that this matter has been thoroughly thrashed out at Farmers' Union meetings all over New Zealand. Up to date no one has indicated the way difficulties referred to can be overcome. Until this is done there is little sense in advocating that workers on farms should be brought within the scope of the Regulations.’

This sounds very reasonable, but it should be assessed against the fact that between 1 October 1943 and 31 March 1946, some 13,300 men and 3300 women were in fact directed into farming.1

Some idea of the protection given to farm labour, in spite of the fact that farming was not declared essential, can be gained from a January 1945 statement of the Director of National Service in which he referred to the country's last reserve of military manpower as the ‘group of 32,483 men, who lacked three years' overseas service but were held in essential industry, 11,874 of them in farming….’2

1 Parliamentary Paper H-11a, Report of the National Service Department, 1946, p. 140. The figures include persons directed into flax and vegetable growing. The same report, at p. 32, says, ‘Persons were directed only to undertakings declared essential, except in a few special cases, particularly farming’, and, at p. 36, ‘Male workers were directed from other industries to the farming industry. Between October, 1943, and March, 1944, 457 men were so directed.’ In most cases, men were ‘placed’ on farms, not ‘directed’, persuasion being used rather than the compulsory powers.

2 Quoted by Wood, p. 292.