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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




In his book State Experiments in New Zealand, W. Pember Reeves records the origin of the Department of Labour as follows: “In May 1891 a deputation from Wellington awaited on the Premier to urge greater measures of relief to the city unemployed. During the discussion it was suggested that the State should use its officials to furnish reports of employment openings in country districts. As a result of this suggestion the Labour Department began its work in June 1891”. Its first name, however, was the Bureau of Industries and it had a staff of one man, E. Tregear. Its name was changed to Department of Labour in 1892 when Pember Reeves was appointed the first Minister of Labour, and Tregear first Secretary of Labour. In 1893 the first Labour Department Act was passed defining the general duties and powers of the Department. It was to administer the labour laws, acquire and disseminate knowledge of occupations with a view to improving relations between employers and workers, and collect and publish information on industries and rates of wages.

The Labour Department Act was re-enacted in 1908 and again in 1954. Between these two dates some major changes took place in the scope and activities of the Department. Between 1930 and 1936 unemployment was handled by an independent Unemployment Board using the offices of the Department as registration bureaus. In 1936 the operations of the Board were transferred to an Employment Division of the Labour Department whose employment activities were strengthened and reconstituted as a specialised service known as the State Placement Service. With the outbreak of war in 1939 these employment activities shrank to negligible proportions and finally lapsed when a special division of the war-time National Service Department took over the control of all industrial manpower. At the end of the war, the Employment Act 1945 set up a National Employment Service to take over employment activities from the National Service Department as from 1 April 1946. The Labour Department had throughout continued to administer the Factories Act, Shops and Offices Act, Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, and other industrial legislation. During the later war years and for a short time afterwards the Labour Department also administered trade-training schemes for demobilised servicemen. On 1 April 1947 the National Employment Service amalgamated with the Department of Labour, which resumed its full range of administration of matters concerning people at work.

The Labour Department Act 1954 was a new Act rather than a review and consolidation of the 1908 measure. The 1954 Act sets out the general functions of the Department as the promotion and maintenance of full employment, safe and healthy working conditions, good relationships between employers and workers, and the proper fulfilment by employers, workers, and other persons of obligations placed upon them by awards and industrial agreements and by the Acts, regulations, and orders administered by the Department. The Department is specifically empowered, inter alia, to provide a complete employment service; to make inspections; to collect and publish information on employment, unemployment, and wages; to make surveys and forecasts of employment; to establish, maintain, and operate hostels; to provide a home aid service; and to arrange for the selection, transport, and accommodation of immigrants. A Schedule to the Act lists 21 Acts which the Department is required to administer. In addition to labour legislation, the Department also administers legislation on weights and measures, on tenancy, and on national service registration.

Edward Tregear was Secretary of Labour from 1892 to 1912. Other holders of the office have been J. Lomas, 1912–13; F. W. Rowley, 1913–29; W. Newton, 1929–32; G. C. Godfrey, 1932–35; J. S. Hunter, 1935–39; H. E. Moston, 1939–46; H. L. Bockett, 1946–64; and H. Parsonage, 1965–. There have been considerably more changes in the office of Minister of Labour, those who have held office being W. P. Reeves, 1892–96; R. J. Seddon, 1896–1906; W. Hall-Jones, 1906; J. A. Millar, 1906–09; A. W. Hogg, 1909; J. A. Millar, 1909–12; G. Laurenson, 1912; W. F. Massey, 1912–20; W. H. Herries, 1920–21; G. J. Anderson, 1921–28; W. A. Veitch, 1928–30; S. G. Smith, 1930–31; A. Hamilton, 1931–35; H. T. Armstrong, 1935–38; P. C. Webb, 1938–46; J. O'Brien, 1946; A. McLagan, 1946–49; W. Sullivan, 1949–57; J. K. McAlpine, 1957; F. Hackett, 1957–60; T. P. Shand, 1960–.


Noel Spencer Woods, M.A., DIP.ED., DIP.SOC.SC., Chief Research Officer, Department of Labour, Wellington.

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