They’re something of the worker bees of the port industry – busily toiling away to ensure the ships in port are loaded or unloaded quickly and efficiently.
Stevedores, also known as longshoremen, dockworkers, and wharfies, provide the key link between the port and the vessel. Multiskilled, they operate a range of machinery from cranes and forklifts to grabs and on-ship excavators in all weathers and at all times of day and night.
Andy Matuku has been a stevedore for close to 15 years, starting off as a casual before working his way up to foreman and now operations manager for SSA New Zealand Taranaki.
SSA, an international stevedoring company, has had a presence at Port Taranaki since the early 1990s when it took over Southern Cross Stevedores. It was most recently known as New Plymouth Stevedoring Services.
Like the name, the job has changed markedly over the years as the types of cargo has evolved and the way it is carried has adapted to new technology and new markets.
“There have been huge changes. We have people working for us who are the second or third generation of a family to work as stevedores, right back to when there used to be 200-300 wharfies,” Andy says. “Now we have a permanent staff of 17 and as many casuals.”
Containerisation did away with the manual sorting of most ships, and in the process did away with a large proportion of the wharfside workforce. Now, with container services having ended at Port Taranaki, logs and animal feed and fertilisers dominate.
“The skills have had to adapt. With logs being a big part of the business, we’ve had to become skilled in operating on-ship excavators to load logs neatly. There’s a real knack to it so we train as many staff as possible,” Andy says.
Time is money in shipping, so Andy works closely with SSA Taranaki’s cargo clients and shipping agents to ensure stevedores are on-hand as soon as a ship arrives in port.
“Once we’ve started there’s no stopping – it’s 24/7 until the ship is loaded or unloaded. Staff generally work 12 hours on and 12 hours off or rolling eight-hour shifts.”
It’s a tough job, but also rewarding, Andy says.
“Every day is different. The job is the same but the dynamics change depending on the weather, the people and the cargo. So if you don’t mind shift work and working in the rain, it can be a job for life.”