Automation and digitalisation: New Technology in Ports

ITF’s dockers’ unions have been at the sharp end of port automation. Due to new technology we have seen jobs disappear, change and shift location.

Nevertheless, while we often hear about fully automated ports, we need to bear in mind that it is questionable whether there are any truly automated ports in the world, ports that function without people. Ports are complex assemblies of machinery and systems, some of which can be relatively easily isolated and automated (like rolling gantry cranes). Port conditions around the world vary significantly too. As a whole though, a port is not easy to automate.

For example, it is not easy to automate the process of lifting or loading a container off or onto a ship. The ship and container move unpredictably. The tides change, wind speed and visibility varies. Often only a worker with experience can predict how. Even in the more predictable areas automation, it is only possible after workers have trained automation engineers to understand the job. This amounts to dockworkers training people to build technologies that can later replace them. Other forms of technology can effectively shift workers away from the dockside through the use of remote control. And this is what often happens.

So we need to bear in mind that we are usually talking about the automation of a process, rather than a whole port, and sometimes we are talking about the introduction of remote control even if companies’ marketing describes it as ‘port automation’.  But dockers still lose their jobs when these technologies are used, and any remaining jobs still change – people go from operating machinery to overseeing it. For many dockers the new role doesn’t feel like dock work. For example, crane operators can now work from dockside offices rather than be in the cranes themselves. Or the work can even be done in another country, as has happened to dock workers in Melbourne and Oslo. So in ports we are seeing a combination of automation and remote control technology impacting dock workers in several ways. But the job losses due to automation don’t just impact dockworkers – there are significant economic costs to surrounding communities when jobs go. This should be an issue of broader concern to port communities.

In a similar way to the impacts on workers elsewhere, in docks technology makes some parts of a job less skilled, can increase the transparency of a job to supervision, can intensify workloads and responsibility and can also make some aspects of a job more intellectually demanding. So jobs can become less physically demanding, but more mentally demanding. Furthermore, while demand for some jobs shrinks, demand for other roles increases – for example automated ports suffer from a shortage of automation engineers, or people who can maintain sensors and other equipment. There is no reason why existing dockworkers can’t be retrained to do this work, and some of our unions have managed to get employers to agree to this and to rehire lists and other forms of compensation. These forms of compensation should take into account the work that dockers do and the knowledge they provide to help ‘train’ the automation engineers who programme the equipment that will replace them.  There are many drivers for automation in ports but one of them is no doubt ‘political’. Ports are strategic economic locations, chokepoints for international trade. As history has shown this makes dockers’ unions powerful, and governments have often interfered against their mobilisation. Automation reduces the number of jobs in a port, changes the dockside culture and weakens dockers’ unions, which can have a dual economic and political purposes. We have seen a similar process with the building of ‘greenfield’ ports that make use of non-union labour, so automation can be part of a broader pattern of anti-union behaviour.

There are thousands of ports around the world but only a handful of them are crucial to the global economy. These are mainly located in Asia Pacific (including Australia), Western Europe and the United States. When we look at where port automation has happened or is planned, we can see that it is mainly affecting ports in these same areas. According to analyst Neil Davidson, only 1 per cent of ports are currently fully automated, and only 2 per cent are semi-automated. One provider of automation technology expects the number of automated ports to grow to 100 by 2020. Whether this is an exaggeration or not, there is clearly a lot of potential for more ports to become automated or semi-automated in coming years.

Proponents of port automation claim that technology can deliver higher throughput of containers with far less people, leading to reductions in labour costs of around 60 per cent, while also saving on maintenance and energy use. Overall cost reductions of around 30 per cent are claimed. However, there are many factors holding further deployment back. Although some operators claim that automated cranes can make 30 moves per hour, it appears that this isn’t easy to achieve, nor is it necessarily better than the rates possible in manual terminals. At the same time, automated terminals are not as flexible as manned ones. If there is a downturn in volumes or if routes shift to alternative ports, the sunk costs are immense. Automated ports are also vulnerable to hacking and viruses which can be costly to repair or defend against, and there is the fact that machinery depreciates and can rapidly become outdated.

Dockers do not oppose new technology in ports, but we have good reason for scepticism when the technology is expensive, inflexible and not as productive as people are. But perhaps none of that matters if the real purpose is to weaken our unions.