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What Is Stevedoring?

By Jeremy Laukkonen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Stevedoring is an occupation that involves the loading and unloading of ships in addition to various other dockside duties and responsibilities. People in this occupation are typically known as stevedores in Europe, though their counterparts in the United States and other areas are also referred to as longshoremen. In countries where stevedoring is commonplace, all of the cargo that passes through both domestic and international ports will usually be handled by people in this occupation. Some stevedores operate heavy machinery, such as tractor trailers and cranes, while others perform manual labor or clerical work. Businesses that specialize in loading and unloading shipping vessels are sometimes referred to as stevedoring companies.

The word "stevedoring" came into the English language by way of either Spanish or Portuguese, both of which have similarly sounding terms to describe people who handle the cargo of shipping vessels. Since it entered English, the term has had a number of slightly different meanings. The occupation of stevedore is often used interchangeably with others, such as "docker" in the United Kingdom and "longshoreman" in the United States, though stevedore can also refer specifically to highly skilled or experienced workers. Stevedoring companies are often contracted to handle dock work as well, in which case they often employ men and women known as dockers, longshoremen, or wharfies, depending on the location.

At one time, stevedores primarily boarded shipping vessels once they entered a harbor and worked to unload the cargo from there, at which point dockers or longshoremen would handle the goods once they were on the dock. This distinction has lost some of its rigidity with the advent of container shipping, since the cranes and other heavy equipment used to load and unload modular shipping containers are often located on the dock. In this way, modern stevedoring can include the entire range of cargo handling responsibilities.

The way that each port handles stevedoring is typically dictated by the country or area it is located in. Some areas have ports that are operated by the government or through a partnership between public and private interests, though others contract out all of the stevedoring operations to private companies. In many cases, all of the stevedores who operate out of a particular port must belong to a specific union. The union then decides which stevedores receive the available jobs, usually on some type of seniority basis. It is often difficult to begin a career as a stevedore due to the large number of workers compared to the available jobs, in addition to the rigorous process required to join the union if one is present.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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