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Handling Cargo

The docker`s job

Tough and independent, dockers are a race apart. Ports depend on them more than any other group of workers. Because of this, and the way they used to be employed, they had the power to disrupt the port.

Much dock work involves hard physical labour, but a degree of skill and experience is also needed. It is also very specialised. The main distinction is between stevedores and porters, but there are many other types of worker.

Stevedores and porters

Workers loading timber onto the deck of a coaster

Magnifying glassWorkers loading timber onto the deck of a coaster

Stevedores actually fill and empty ships. They work in the hold of a ship, to stow the cargo most efficiently, or unload it as quickly as possible. Also referred to as stevedores are those who work on deck, lowering or raising the cargo from the hold, and move it between ship and shore. Stevedores are regarded as the most skilled of dockers and their work is probably the most hazardous. This is usually reflected in their wages.

In contrast to stevedores, porters never go on a ship. When the stevedores have unloaded the cargo porters move it from the dockside into warehouses or sheds. They also have tasks such as counting, sorting, and weighing items. They also pack them into canal boats, barges, rail wagons or trucks.

In a large port, dockers might specialise in different types of cargo. Fruit porters, for instance, become very skilled at judging the fruit they unloaded. So much so, that the fruit merchants relied on the porters to grade the fruit they sold. In cotton importing ports like Liverpool, some stevedores specialised in this particular cargo because of the way it was loaded. Being light and bulky, bales of cotton were physically forced into the holds in loading ports such as New Orleans (Southern United States), so as much as possible could be carried. Getting it out again was a skilled job.

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During the 20th century, ports became more mechanised. The need for stevedores and porters to do manual labour declined. In their place came more crane operators and fork lift truck drivers. Since the 1970s, containerisation has accelerated this change. Containers are now usually filled (or `stuffed and emptied at the customer`s premises. When the container arrives at the port, the object is to get it off or on the ship with the least delay. Vehicles called straddle carriers carry the containers from and to the dockside. Massive cranes then lift them on and off the ship. The owner wants his container ship in port for the least possible time. So ports are judged on how many container movements they can achieve in an hour. Machines, not men, dominate the dockside in the 21st century.


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