“Did you know that there are women operating cranes at Hutchison Ports Pakistan?” asks a friend. Suddenly I can envision paan-spitting women in hard hats screaming down abuses at the other workers below from inside their crane cabins as they go about lifting and shifting containers.
But Faryal and Umama are definitely not those kinds of crane operators. To understand their work one first needs to understand Hutchison Ports Pakistan, a subsidiary of the Hong Kong-based Hutchison Ports that has operations in 52 ports, spanning 26 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas and Australia.
Travelling towards the city via the Mai Kolachi bypass one may have noticed a few additional cranes to the left of the old ones that we are familiar with and which children point to as giraffe skeletons from their car windows. The eight new remote-controlled ship-to-shore (STS) cranes ensure quick and efficient handling of large volumes of cargo containers at Hutchison Ports Pakistan.
Located at the mouth of the Karachi harbour, the facility, also known as the new China deepwater port, has no tide restrictions leading to easy navigation; therefore, it offers easier accessibility for vessels with shorter distances and shorter steaming times.
The container terminal directly overlooks Karachi’s beautiful coastline. With a depth of 16.5 metres and an ideal location for berthing bigger vessels, it has the capacity to accommodate mega vessels, unlike other ports in the country.
The remote-controlled cranes and remote-controlled quay cranes (RCQCs), the first of their kind in Pakistan, control tower coordination through CCTV and trunked radio systems and a mobile terminal messaging system are some of the high-tech features of the terminal that ensure efficiency in operations along with safety of employees.
The speed of clearing ships and moving 20-foot equivalent units or containers to their destinations really matters at a busy port running on global standards such as this one; so they really need talented staff to ensure efficient operations around the clock.
This is where the two young engineers, Faryal Anwar and Umama Saleem, come in. Both, after completing their initial 100 hours as observers are now performing supervised operations under a mentor who they respectfully call “Ustad”.
“Our primary job is crane maintenance and operating cranes is an added skill,” says Faryal, an electronics engineer from the Dawood University of Engineering and Technology. “Our first challenge after coming here and operating the cranes was gaining the trust of our colleagues,” she adds.
Umama, who has done electrical engineering from the NED University of Engineering and Technology, cuts in then: “But the company trusted us with its high-tech equipment first. I have found that even though acceptance of women in such jobs is low it can be enhanced as we prove ourselves.”
“Earlier, when we were offered work by the Hutchison Ports Pakistan at our universities even our parents didn’t quite understand what kind of work it involved,” says Faryal.
“They couldn’t see the bigger picture,” Umama adds. “But the company was offering us hands-on experience so why not? We accepted the offer to come here and start off as trainees looking after crane maintenance. Then we were also offered crane operation in the middle of it,” she smiles.
“Earlier, when my brother noticed my greasy hands after some maintenance work at the cranes, he commented: ‘Hum tau tumhare haath peelay kerne ka soch rahe thay. Tum ne tau haath kalay ker liye [We were thinking it’s time to marry you off and see your hennaed hands but your hands are all black from the grease now]’,” laughs Umama.
The young women make a great team. Faryal says that since she is trained as an electronics engineer she helps Umama where electronics come in while Umama helps her with electrical work during maintenance. And both take over crane operations whenever there is a shortage of the regular crane operators.
“It is fun, just like playing a virtual game,” Umama says as we step into the crane operations section. And then one realises that operating cranes at this port does not involve actually getting into a crane cabin.
They operate them from desks surrounded by at least six monitors with screen divisions showing each angle from 23 different cameras in a state-of-the-art control room. In front of the operator is a handheld speaker device for communicating with the staff on the ship and the ground along with three joysticks with which they can easily move the containers from the ship or the terminal.
According to Saira Khan, the manager for commercial and corporate affairs at the port, who handles shipping lines, women earlier were not even allowed at the container terminals.
“It was hard work and just not a field for us as we are not known for handling heavy equipment. But we are happy for this new opportunity and feel lucky to be the pioneers, leaving a legacy for others to follow,” she says, Captain Syed Rashid Jamil, the CEO of the port, also felt excited for opening a whole new job stream that was not gender driven. “Our initial concept was to take educated youth. And then we found these young ladies who are doing good work here and breaking gender norms,” he says.
Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2018