Stevedores in Port Terminals: Understanding Their Role in Getting Your Cargo Delivered

Stevedores are vital to port terminals in Australia. Also known as container terminal operators (CTOs), these companies are essential to the construction, development, day-to-day operations and overarching vision of container terminals across the country and indeed all around the world.

They play a critical role in the Australian economy, especially since the majority of the nation’s trade is conducted through ports.  The country is an island nation and so heavily relies on seaside terminals to safely transport goods in and out of its borders.

If you’re looking to understand what stevedores are, what they do and which stevedores operate in Australia, then you’re in the right place. Below, we’ll outline a short history of stevedores, their process from beginning to end, the largest stevedoring companies in the country and important industry trends to keep your eye on.

stevedores at port terminals

What are stevedores?

Stevedores are people who work on docks, primarily unloading and loading ships. They also conduct various other duties across docks. The word ‘stevedore’ originates from the Spanish word estibador, which literally means, ‘a man who loads ships and stows cargo’. They are often known in different countries as longshoremen, dockers or dockworkers. In Australia, they are commonly known as ‘wharfies’.

In the modern economy, a reference to a ‘stevedore’ is often associated with a ‘stevedoring company’, which today includes large corporations such as DP World, Patricks, Hutchinson and QUBE. These companies employ labourers (‘wharfies’) who work at large container terminals to ensure the proper loading, stowage and unloading of ships. These ships may include freight container vessels but also cruise ships.

Stevedore at port

A short history of stevedores

Stevedores have been around as long as ocean trade has existed. Throughout history, stevedores have been central figures in commercial waterways. The job was always considered among the most dangerous, with the position requiring detailed knowledge of how to safely handle incredibly heavy cargo.

Stevedores needed to be strong, focused and have a strong work ethic, given they were at the gateway of their country’s trade and directly responsible for ensuring goods flowed in and out safely, efficiently and profitably. They were the ‘interface’ between land and sea operations.

historical image of stevedore

Throughout the 20th century, Australia saw the growth of important stevedores such as James Patrick & Company (now Patrick Stevedores). That company marketed itself in the 1950s as the “only wholly Australian-owned independent stevedoring company serving the national interest of Australia”.

More and more stevedoring companies became present across the mid to late twentieth century, with various acquisitions and mergers forming the corporate stevedoring landscape we see today.

The stevedore process from beginning to end

Stevedoring is a heavily involved job, often dealing with complex heavy machinery, tight deadlines and pressure from different areas within the supply chain. A crew of ‘wharfies’ will typically operate on shiftwork, given most – if not, all – terminals across Australia operate on a 24/7 basis.

Ultimately, a vessel makes its money when transporting goods at sea and when carrying cargo to and from ports. When they are actually at a port, they are costing money. The role of stevedores is therefore to minimise port time as much as possible and get a ship back out into the water.

Below is the general process undertaken by stevedores.

Loading and unloading vessels

This is the most prominent part of a stevedoring job. When a ship arrives at a port, somebody has to be there to take incoming cargo off and place outgoing cargo on. A stevedore will operate complex machinery in order to execute this job, all the way from forklifts to rail-mounted gantry cranes.

This process must be done carefully, as any mishandling can cause damage to the cargo onboard the ship.

Inspecting cargo

Part of a stevedore’s job is also to inspect the cargo. This is to ensure all cargo is in order of loading and unloading, that it is not damaged and the correct cargo is where it needs to be.

Stevedores will closely examine containers that come and go and will record any damage that they identify. They will also inspect cargo to ensure that the containers have been properly ‘stowed’ and ‘lashed’ (explained below).

stevedores inspecting cargo

Stowage and lashing

Before the ‘containerisation’ of ocean trade, the men who loaded and unloaded vessels were required to literally tie-down cargo with rope and tie strong knots (called ‘stevedore knots’) to make sure the cargo was secure. This method was referred to as ‘lashing’. They also used wood (called ‘dunnage’) in order to keep cargo out of any water that might be in the ship’s hold.

Today, most cargo is transported in large containers. When containers are loaded onto ships, the process of securing them to the ship is referred to as ‘lashing’. Today it involves using equipment like ropes, wiring, webbing, chains, bandings, strappings and other devices.

Who are the main stevedoring companies in the industry?

There are a number of stevedoring companies in Australia. Normally, these companies will enter into long-term leases with port authorities, allowing them to exclusive operate a part or part of the port.

Patricks

Patrick Terminals (referred to across the industry as Patrick) is one of the country’s leading stevedoring companies. It is owned by Qube Holdings and Brookfield Asset Management. The company operates in various terminals throughout Australia including Sydney, Brisbane, Fremantle and Melbourne. The company claims to have handled 1,472 vessels over the past 12 months.

DP World

DP World is the country’s largest stevedore, with operations at Brisbane (Fisherman Islands Terminal), Melbourne (Swanson Dock West), Fremantle and Port Botany. DP World claims to oversee 1,700 vessels, 1.5 million trucks, 3 million containers and 3,100 trains. They say that they’re the only stevedore to have certifications in security, safety and environmental management systems.

Hutchinson

Hutchison is probably the world’s largest stevedore. They’re located at 53 ports across 27 different countries. Their Australian operations are located at Port Botany and the Port of Brisbane. In 2016, Hutchinson Sydney announced a milestone having lifted their 500,000th container at the port.

ACFS

ACFS Port Logistics is a privately owned stevedore that claims to have moved over 1.2 million TEU annually. They’re located in Fremantle, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide.

LINX

The LINX Cargo Care Group is one of the country’s younger stevedores, forming in 2016 after the breakup of freight logistics company Asciano Limited.

The company is made up of various business units, including Linx (which provides the stevedore services) as well as Autocare (vehicle logistics), GeelongPort (the Port of Geelong, which is 50% owned by LINX), C3 (forestry and logistics) and the Pedersen Group (wood chipping).

QUBE

QUBE provides a wide range of import and export logistics services and owns a 50% stake in Patricks (discussed above). The company’s Operating Division consists of QUBE Ports (port services), QUBE Bulk (bulk material handling services) and QUBE Logistics (road and rail transport, warehousing, distribution and related services).

Stevedoring industry trends (2021 – 2022)

Modern stevedores in Australia face a raft of complex issues, especially as global supply chains struggle with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll outline some of these important trends below.

ACCC Monitoring Report

In November 2021, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) published a container stevedoring monitoring report, presenting information about modern Australian stevedoring operations.

The report was controversial, highlighting various inefficiencies across Australian ports compared to the rest of the world. The report claimed that the supply chain is not functioning effectively because of pandemic-related disruptions. Port capacity has declined. The average number of hours taken to unload vessels with over 6,000 containers had increased by 20% in the latter half of 2020. Vessel congestion also got worse and had knock-on effects on shipping schedules.

The report says that Australian ports “are not internationally competitive”. It said that international studies have shown that “Australian ports are among the worst-performing ports in the world”.

“The World Bank and IHS Markit found that, based on the metrics it used …  container ports in Australia were relatively inefficient and well below international best practices. Australian major container ports, except for Brisbane, were found to be in the bottom quartile of the worst-performing container ports in the study. Brisbane was found to be in the bottom 50% of the ports in the study.”

DP World was critical of the report. They noted their ‘surprise’ at the ACCC’s reliance on IHS Markit, saying that the IHS Markit findings require “further scrutiny”. The large stevedore also said that Australian ports across the pandemic “outperformed many other international container ports”, with many Asian ports having entirely shut down during the global health crisis.

Industrial Action

Stevedores over the past couple of years have had to deal with intense disputes with labour unions over the terms and conditions of employed dockworkers. The Maritime Union of Australia, a powerful union that employs many stevedore workers across the country, has threatened and also engaged in waves of industrial action severely disrupting port operations before and during the pandemic.

Work stoppages have occurred across various port terminals, with over 220 notified disputes against Patrick Terminals alone. Disruptions occurred in Sydney, Fremantle, Brisbane and Melbourne. Forms of stoppages included things like bans on overtime, shift extensions and accepting late call-ins. There were also bans on workers working on tasks above their normal grade. DP World blamed the industrial action as resulting in “detrimental services to waterside, landside and rail at all stevedores”.

The result has meant increased delays and cargo backlog for importers and exporters trying to ship their goods to and from Australia. It also caused many shipping lines to levy congestion fees, costing some companies around $25,000 per day.

What can we expect in the future?

It is unpredictable what stevedores will face as we emerge out of the pandemic’s worst. Ports are still struggling with issues such as port congestion, threatened industrial action and severe infrastructure bottlenecks.

Australian stevedores await to see how policies implemented by the new federal Labor Government will shape the fate of the industry, from economic policy to industrial relations reform.

Get advice from a professional freight forwarder

It’s clear that no matter what challenges are presented to the sector, importers and exporters must seek professional guidance from their freight forwarding partners. Freight forwarders are always on the frontline, keeping up to speed with all the issues that arise in our fast-changing shipping landscape.

The team at International Cargo Express have decades of combined experience helping Australian and international businesses navigate the supply chain, so that they can safely and profitably transport their goods to and from the country.

If you’re looking to engage to ship your goods overseas, there is no doubt that you will need to engage with stevedores. ICE has developed strong connections with all the important stevedores around Australia and can ensure the smooth movement of your goods from Point A to B.

Get in touch with the team at ICE to discuss your next shipment or ask any questions in the comment section below.

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