Reserved occupations, Second World War

Labour controls were introduced during the Second World War to meet a crisis in manpower and to administrate between the needs of the armed services and industry. Manpower regulations affected the individual liberties and touched the day to day activities of Australians perhaps more than any other executive operations of government throughout this period.

The first significant regulation introduced during the first two years of the war was to reserve occupations from military service. Occupations reserved were those which were essential for the production of equipment and supplies for the war effort. In 1940, the Minister for State of Defence Coordination published a List of reserved occupations (provisional) to ensure maximum manpower for the war effort. The list was devised to prevent the voluntary enlistment of skilled workers from essential services, such as munitions production. The list was not mandatory and it was open to anyone to seek release from their reserved occupations.

In early 1942, however, during the crisis of the Japanese advance in the Pacific, more than 100,000 men were called up for full-time service. The list of reserved occupations was not strong enough to administrate the demands of the services against the demands of industry and a labour crisis began to emerge.

So, in January 1942 a Manpower Directorate was established and took over responsibility for the List of reserved occupations. In March 1942 the list was replaced by a Schedule of reserved occupations and industrial priorities. The Director-General of Manpower was able to exempt any person from service in the armed forces; to declare that industries were “protected” and require that a permit be obtained for any change of employment. From March all labour required by unprotected establishments needed to apply for labour through the National Service offices and all unemployed persons were to register within seven days of becoming unemployed.

From the first of April 1942 all engagement of male labour was controlled and a national registration of both male and female labour was completed. The government had the power to say what every man should do whether in the armed services, war industry or civilian industry. The powers under the Manpower Regulations included:

  • Power to exempt a person from service or prohibit their enlistment
  • Prevent employers from engaging labour not authorised by the directorate
  • Restrict the right of employees to engage in the employment of their choice
  • Prevent employees from leaving their employment
  • Restrict the right of the employer to dismiss his employees
  • Power to direct any person to leave one employment and engage in another
  • And compel individuals to register and provide information about themselves.


    • Peter Dennis et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995
    • Director General of Manpower, Control of manpower in Australia: a general review of the administration of the Manpower Directorate, February, 1942-September, 1944, Government Printer, Sydney, 1944
    • Paul Hasluck, The government and the people 1942–1945, Australia in the war of 1939–45, vol. 2, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1955, p. 282
    • List of reserved occupations (Provisional), Department of Defence Coordination, September 1940
    • D.P. Mellor, The role of science and industry, Australia in the war of 1939–45, vol. 5, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1958, p. 191
    • Schedule of reserved occupations and industrial priorities, Office of Director-General of Manpower, Department of Labour and National Service, February 1942
    • Reserved Occupations Order, National Security (General) Regulations, Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, no. 55, 20 March 1940

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