What is port automation — and why are striking workers concerned about it?

Date: Monday, July 10, 2023
Source: CBC

More than 7,400 unionized employees at more than 30 ports along British Columbia's coast are off the job in a labour dispute that concerns, among a number of issues, how automation will affect the future of work at vital maritime gateways for Canadian imports and exports.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU), which represents the striking workers, has warned for years automation will be a threat to current and future jobs at the province's ports.

There are now more than 50 terminals around the world with some degree of automation, according to a report from the International Transport Federation (ITF), incorporating equipment such as automated stacking cranes, gantries and guided transport vehicles controlled from remote operating centres.

British Columbia has two semi-automated container terminals: Global Container Terminals' (GCT) Deltaport, which is located at the Roberts Bank Superport, 37 kilometres south of downtown Vancouver in the city of Delta; and DP World's Fairview Container Terminal in Prince Rupert on the North Coast.

But a proposed third terminal, the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 expansion project, which recently received federal approval, has the ILWU warning of what could come.

Weeks before the contract talks broke down and the strike began, on July 1, ILWU Canada president Rob Ashton warned of the "domino effect" a new automated terminal could have on the Port of Vancouver — Canada's busiest port — possibly forcing conventional terminals to automate as well.

While port workers walk the picket lines to demand protections against what the union describes as the "devastating impacts" of automation, others warn slow movement on automation may pose its own risks to the industry and Canada's economy.

Canada lagging on automation

The legitimate concerns for job loss have to be weighed against the greater benefit to consumers and the economy, said Joel Bilt, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo who has researched automation and the future of work.

He said it's "worrisome" how much Canada is falling behind when it comes to automation, in general, and the country is going to pay a price if it doesn't start catching up, noting Canada is now the second-least productive economy among its Group of Seven partners, with Japan in the bottom slot.

"I really do see both sides," Blit said. "But we can't, as a country, allow the interests of one particular group to sort of stall the technological advance and the productivity advance of our economy."

ILWU's Ashton, speaking to CBC Vancouver's Early Edition, pointed out that there is already some automated equipment in use at conventional container terminals and the union has worked with terminal operators to procure technology that can "help make the workers' job easier."

But he said it's a different situation entirely when it comes to automation that will take away jobs.

Ashton referenced an ILWU-commissioned study, released in 2019, that estimated semi-automating work could lead to the elimination of 50 per cent of the workforce and as much as 90 per cent in the case of full automation — even when factoring in positions created as a result of automation.

Lessons from Long Beach and Los Angeles

While ports in other countries have already travelled further down the path to automation, they don't necessarily provide clear answers on whether it will kill jobs or keep people working.

In California, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles offer both possibilities, depending on which report you reference.

A report commissioned by the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators and shipping lines in labour negotiations, found that from 2015, the last year before automated operations, through 2021 paid hours at the automated Long Beach Container Terminal and Los Angeles' TraPac Terminal grew 31.5 per cent – more than double the growth in paid hours at non-automated terminals.

However, a separate report underwritten by the ILWU found that in 2020 and 2021, automation eliminated 572 full-time-equivalent jobs annually at the two terminals.

Automation can't solve every problem

The Port of Vancouver is Canada's busiest port but also one of the least efficient in the world, according to the most recent Container Port Performance Index from the World Bank and S&P Global Intelligence, ranking second to last out of 348 international ports, right behind Long Beach.

"[An] inefficient port acts like a tax on any kind of trade," said the University of Waterloo's Blit, who is also a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, explaining it not only drives up costs for consumers but also make companies less competitive.

But automation may not be the solution when it comes to solving backlogs at container ports, according to Peter Turnbull, a professor at the University of Bristol's School of Management who has studied port labour relations since the 1980s.

He told CBC News one of the shortfalls of automation may be less flexibility and decreased ability to solve problems happening in the moment.

"If I'm on the terminal with a scanner, and I realize it's the wrong [container] box … I can work out where I can put it," he said, explaining a misplaced container can have a ripple effect leading to more work and delays.

He said other complications, like ship delays, weather factors and equipment repairs, may also be more easily managed when workers are on the spot rather than operating equipment.

A 2018 survey from the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company not only suggested productivity at automated ports fell seven to 15 per cent, but cost reductions were actually less than expectations.

Turnbull said there can be new opportunities borne out of technological change but he explained there is a sense of "pride" port workers have in everyone doing their part to keeping everything moving smoothly but "machines take that away" when greater automation is introduced.

Although Blit believes there is a need for more automation, he said steps need to be taken to protect livelihoods, noting robotic automation is more likely to displace people at the "lower end of the scale of distribution" while computerization tends to impact mid-scale jobs.

"If it is a small group that is bearing the cost, we need to make sure that we're helping those folks again to retrain, maybe with other kinds of support, and not just leaving them, you know, hanging them out to dry," he said.


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