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Building Mending Ships

Jobs for all

Team work and piece work

The process of putting a ship together demands team work. Riveting, for instance, needed someone to heat the rivet, then someone to hold it in palace, and someone to hammer it. So, teams of workers were formed. Often, these gangs were employed on piece work. They did not get a regular wage from the shipyard. Instead they agreed with a foreman a price for doing a certain amount of work, and did it as quickly as possible. Members of a gang thus accepted some of the risk of shipbuilding. They could do well when the yard was busy, but suffered financially when work was short.


The boom and slump nature of shipbuilding meant workers` jobs were threatened in years when orders were short. It was in the yard`s financial interests to lay off first those earning the highest wages, especially if a lower-paid, less-skilled worker could do the same job. To protect themselves against this, employees formed trade unions which negotiated agreements with management on who did what. For instance, the person who fitted a window in a ship`s side could not cut out the hole for it. This was not only inefficient. It also led to disputes between unions as to which ones members should do a particular job. These demarcation disputes held up work, and management was almost powerless to prevent them. Only when British shipbuilding was in decline did both management and unions realise it was in both their interests to adopt better, more secure working conditions.

Jobs for all

With so much work needed in ports, and such a variety of jobs, it is not surprising that port cities are often vibrant communities. People are needed to work on ships, on the dockside, "behind the scenes" or in shipyards. There are a large variety of tasks to do. This includes paper work and desk jobs, as well as manual work. In the second half of the 20th century, ports became more mechanised, bringing in new styles of working.

However, if the port hits hard times, many people can suffer through being thrown out of work. This can also lead to job losses in other industries that depend on the port, such as rail and road transport. Local businesses may also suffer because former shipworkers no longer have as much money to spend.

Ports are a source of great wealth, employment and status for a region. Ports are thus a very important part of the economy.


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