A longshoreman, also sometimes called a harbor worker or a dock laborer, is primarily responsible for loading and unloading cargo on a docked ship. Longshoremen typically work in teams to systematically move and sort shipping containers, oil barrels, and other cargo. The job involves both the operation of machinery and manual labor like lifting and pushing. Some knowledge of logistics is also usually an asset.
Sea-based cargo is an important part of most countries’ economies. Some things can be shipped by air, but for heavier objects like cars and machine parts, shipment by sea is often much more practical. Most of the time, though, cargo ships do not staff enough people on board to completely load or unload the holds at each port of call. For this they rely on teams of longshoremen.
One of the most important duties of any longshoreman is the operation of cranes, forklifts, and other heavy machinery that can be used to move cargo either onto or off of a ship. Workers must be able to take orders from the dock manager or boss, often called a “stevedore.” A stevedore’s instructions often pertain to how cargo should be ordered, and where it should be placed and processed.
Longshoremen are also expected to secure containers once loaded. This usually involves tying them down or “thrashing” them once they are loaded onto ships, then untying them when it is time to unload. Shoveling work is commonly required as well, particularly when it comes to bulk cargo like coal, grains, and gravel. Depending on the specifics of a given job, a longshoreman could spend an entire day shoveling.
Most of the time, a longeshoreman’s hours are determined by shipping or dock schedules. International sea freight is a round-the-clock business, which means that longshoremen may be needed at any time of the day or night. There is usually plenty of notice when it comes to required hours, but predictability is not usually associated with the job.
Differences Between Casual and Permanent Workers
In most markets, there are two categories of longshoremen — those who are members of permanent loading teams, and those who are hired as-needed for specific projects. The latter are usually referred to as “casual workers,” and enjoy little to no job security. They usually apply in person when ships arrive in hopes of finding work. If there is a need for more hands, they are often hired on.
Many longshoremen approach casual work as a door to a more permanent position, though the waiting can be long. It is not uncommon for a longshoreman to work for five years or more in a casual capacity before he or she is picked up for a contracted job.
Those who are contracted by specific stevedores or loading companies have much greater job stability, and are usually salaried. They may also receive benefits like health insurance and paid vacations or sick days. In the United States, most permanent workers are members of longshoremen’s unions, which protect workers’ rights and job security.
Due in part to how dangerous and physically demanding the job of a longshoreman is, the pay is usually somewhat high. Permanent workers almost always make more than casual hires, but much depends on seniority. In most cases, longshoremen of all ranks can expect to make as much if not more than they would in an entry-level office job.
Training and Experience Required
The most important asset for any longshoreman is the ability to do manual labor and the flexibility to work long and irregular hours. Fluency in the language of supervisors is usually required, but there are rarely any specific training or education standards. Some docks set age minimums, usually 16 or 18. Within these parameters, anyone who is physically able is usually eligible to work.