Brains instead of brawn

Industrialisation has been changing the working environment at the port since the first steamship docked in Hamburg. Over the decades, employment on the quaysides became more and more sophisticated, better paid and less physically demanding. Training and qualifications resulted in new job profiles and therefore a wider range of opportunities for people.

In the middle of the 19th century, the Port of Hamburg was an immense forest of masts. Sailing ships were packed closely together, with small ewers and barges manoeuvring between them. Most goods were transferred onto these smaller boats in the middle of the river or in the docks.

In the 19th century, cargo sailors dominated the port of Hamburg. Here they bring barrels of petroleum and are unloaded by day laborers.

The way ships were loaded and unloaded had changed little over many centuries. More than 150 years ago, dockers and quayside workers toiled under conditions as inhumane as they were in the Middle Ages: poor pay, frequent accidents and physically exhausting hard labour. Since this work was also very irregular, day labourers waited in pubs to be hired. The barkeepers acted as agents who brokered work at the port in return for commission.

In 1860, a normal work day lasted from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. In 1890, it was still twelve hours long. Safety regulations did not exist. What did exist were plenty of slippery gangways, defective loading equipment, toxic goods, and later, with the advent of steamships, coal dust in the air.

Steamships drove the industrialisation of ports starting in 1870. In Hamburg too, working conditions changed fundamentally as a result. To deal with the increased volume of ships and trade, handling operations increasingly shifted to the quayside. New steam cranes were mounted there, storage sheds were built directly on the quay, and railway tracks were laid right up to the loading ramp. 

Despite support from semi-gantry cranes, workers have to throw the contents of the hoisted sacks onto the conveyor belt.

The new handling technology required specialised skills and expertise. Instead of day labourers, quay operators were now looking for machine operators and foremen. Warehousemen had to be able to calculate properly, and cargo controllers checked the quality of incoming goods.

After many labour disputes, trade unions organised at the port. The Hamburg Senate appointed a port inspector in 1897 “for the protection of port workers from dangers affecting their lives and health”. In 1906, the first labour agreement for dockers came into effect, followed by agreements for other groups of workers. The nine-hour day was finally implemented in 1913, at least on paper.

Nevertheless, until the 1950s, port workers largely continued to be manual labourers whose most important tool was their physical strength.  Though port cranes and electric carts helped them do their jobs, the hoists still had to be packed with cargo. The distribution of goods in storage sheds, railway wagons and carts required arduous manual labour.

This only changed when HHLA became the first company at the port to introduce forklifts. These made the physically demanding work dramatically easier, especially since heavy containers no longer had to be lifted. For example, a crate of oranges weighed more than 30 kilogrammes and sometimes had to be stacked above head level.  

Notwithstanding the physical relief for port workers, employee representatives were concerned that the forklifts could make jobs obsolete. Nevertheless, 70 forklifts were in operation by 1955, and in the mid-1970s the majority of port workers were still needed to load, unload, pack, deliver and receive break bulk cargo. This included freight that nobody enjoyed moving by hand: foul-smelling animal hides, deep-frozen sides of beef and cumbersome barrels containing chemicals.

Yet at this time, the container was already emerging as the biggest game-changer at the port. More and more break bulk was making its way into the steel boxes, which also functioned as travelling warehouses. They swallowed everything that dockers and port workers had moved in the past – cartons, sacks, barrels and bales.


All in all, a complete revolution

Clemens Rabe experienced how general cargo moved into containers on Burchardkai. Not every technique caught on, and the "port heroes" had to adapt.

Read the interview

Containerisation meant that more and more powerful cranes and ground-handling vehicles were needed. At the same time, new job roles, including those of heavy equipment operators, were created. Vehicle drivers were retrained as a result, and hundreds of former manual port labourers obtained the required “patents”, or licences. They were happy to retrain in the new technology. “Since you earned much more operating heavy equipment than anywhere else, most people stayed at the port,” recalled former works council member Jörg Oberkampf.

Operators of the new heavy equipment were trained by HHLA to handle the first fully containerised ships (pictured, the American Lancer).

HHLA responded to the changes and embarked on new pathways in training and education. In the 1960s, the HHLA technical college began systematically training employees and provided the necessary licences for operating various types of equipment. In 1975, HHLA was involved in setting up the Port of Hamburg training centre, the precursor to today’s Maritime Competence Centre (ma-co).

This was necessary, as modern port workers had to use their heads instead of their muscles. “In the 1970s, when I had to haul sacks around, I looked like a bodybuilder,” says Klaus Schepe from HHLA, who spent most of his working life on Burchardkai. He had to keep learning new things, and the work got more stressful, he explains. “But that was part of the job, and I grew with the challenges,” he states, adding that you have to think about the best way to get the work done.

The demands placed on employees grew along with the throughput. Stowage planning for the ever-bigger container ships became like a complicated jigsaw puzzle for which the planners needed plenty of concentration, diligence and routine. The first computer-based stowage systems were therefore greeted optimistically. Though the embryonic technology frayed a lot of nerves at first, today it allows extremely wide-ranging and complex stowage operations to be calculated at lightning speed. 

The faces of HHLA

Containers have accompanied Klaus Schepe almost throughout his entire career.

Read more

Unskilled day labourers who waited hopefully in pubs for jobs became skilled workers over time, with many of them later qualifying as specialist workers. The port has also long been a place for academics. The more modern the technology became, the more sophisticated the demands placed on employees.

Also long gone are the days when physically demanding work earned people just a few Reichsmarks, a wage that was barely enough to survive on. Today, good wages and salaries are paid at the port. In 1972, 12 percent of HHLA employees were in the top wage group; the figure in 1998 was 21.4 percent. Instead of 48 hours per week, as was normal until 1957, work time has gradually decreased by ten hours. The jobs became safer as well. In 1974, there were 752 notifiable accidents at HHLA; twenty years later, there were just 158.

Without a workforce that was willing to adapt, change would not have been possible. There are people at HHLA who have been interested in new logistical and technical solutions their whole lives. Accomplished experts like Gerlinde John. During the East German era, she studied Transportation Sciences. Using analogue mainframe computers, she investigated systems for managing transportation and later worked on the development of a partially automated container terminal for the Port of Rostock.

John’s knowledge was a stroke of luck for HHLA, whose Head of IT recruited her to work on HHLA Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA), which was under construction. A control centre needed to be built and there was no existing model on which to base it. Software had to be used to control and link automated container transporters and storage blocks as productively as possible. “There were a great many sceptics, but not on our team. We all did pioneering work together and wanted to get the terminal up and running,” says John.

Solutions to many questions that had never been asked needed to be found in a completely new IT world. The first idea was not always successful; John had to encourage many of her team members. The further development of the CTA ultimately became her life’s work.

John is not an isolated case. The port has long ceased to be a domain for men. The female seaport logistics specialists, forwarding agents and mechatronics engineers are nothing unusual now; nor are the women who drive forklifts, program software, and operate container gantry cranes at great heights.

A completely new kind of container terminal was developed and built in Hamburg-Altenwerder.

High social standards apply to all job roles at HHLA. In the proven tradition of social partnership, collective bargaining agreements are negotiated that govern wages and salaries, training pay and working conditions.

Not every change at the port has been implemented without resistance. For example, employee representatives tried to prevent the introduction of EDP technology in the 1970s. “In the end, reality and common sense prevailed,” recalled former HHLA works council member Friedrich Martens.

The global introduction of the computer did not pass by the Port of Hamburg. The trade union ÖTV, which represented workers, anticipated it as well. Rolf Fritsch, its Hamburg district chairman (later the Chief Human Resources Officer at HHLA), once called for “courage, and a willingness to take risks in economic and collective bargaining policies that are not defined as rigid agreements to protect vested interests.” This motto is still relevant in times of automation and digitalisation.