More than 7,400 unionized employees at more than 30 ports along the British Columbia coast are out of work in a labor dispute that concerns, among a host of issues, how automation will affect the future of work at port gates. maritime gateways vital to Canadian imports and exports.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union of Canada (ILWU), which represents striking workers, has warned for years that 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 of the International Transport Federation (ITF), incorporating equipment such as automatic stacker cranes, gantries and guided transport vehicles controlled from remote operating centers.
British Columbia has two semi-automated container terminals: Global Container Terminals’ (GCT) Deltaport, which is located at Roberts Bank Superport, 37 kilometers south of downtown Vancouver in the city of Delta; and DP World’s Fairview Container Terminal in Prince Rupert on the North Shore.
But a third proposed terminal, the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 expansion project, which recently received federal approval, has the ILWU warning of what could happen.
Weeks before contract negotiations 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 in the port of Vancouver, Canada’s busiest port, possibly forcing conventional terminals to automate as well.
As dock workers walk the picket lines to demand protections against what the union describes as the “devastating impacts” of automation, others warn that the slow move in automation may present its own risks to Canada’s industry and economy.
Canada lags behind in automation
Legitimate concerns about job losses must 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 is “worrying” how much Canada is falling behind when it comes to automation, in general, and that the country will pay a price if it doesn’t start to catch up, noting that Canada is now the second least productive economy among their partners in the Group of Seven, with Japan in last place.
“I really see both sides,” Blit said. “But we cannot, as a country, allow the interests of one particular group to stop the technological advance and the productivity advance of our economy.”
ILWU’s Ashton, speaking to CBC Vancouver First editionHe noted that there is already some automated equipment in use at conventional container terminals and the union has worked with terminal operators to acquire technology that can “help make workers’ jobs easier.”
But he said it’s a completely different situation when it comes to automation that will eliminate jobs.
Ashton referred to a Study commissioned by ILWUpublished in 2019, that estimated semi-automated work could lead to the elimination of 50 percent of the workforce and up to 90 percent in the case of full automation, even when accounting for jobs created as a result of automation .
Lessons from Long Beach and Los Angeles
While ports in other countries are already further along the road to automation, they don’t necessarily provide clear answers about whether it will eliminate jobs or keep people working.
In California, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles offer both possibilities, depending on which report you refer to.
TO report commissioned by the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators and shipping lines in labor negotiations, found that from 2015, the last year before automated operations, through 2021 paid hours at the Long Automated Beach and Los Angeles TraPac Terminal grew 31.5 percent. percent – more than double the growth in paid hours at non-automated terminals.
However, a separate ILWU-backed report found that in 2020 and 2021, automation eliminated 572 full-time equivalent jobs annually in both terminals.
Automation cannot solve all problems
The Port of Vancouver is the busiest port in Canada, 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 among 348 international ports, just behind Long Beach.
“[An] an inefficient port acts as a tax on any type of trade,” said Blit of the University of Waterloo, who is also a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation, explaining that it not only increases costs for consumers but also It makes companies less competitive.
But automation may not be the answer when it comes to solving delays at container ports, according to Peter Turnbull, a professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Management who has studied port labor relations since the 1980s.
He told Breaking: that one of the shortcomings of automation may be less flexibility and less ability to solve problems that occur in the moment.
“If I’m in the terminal with a scanner and I realize it’s the [container] box… I can figure out where I can put it,” he said, explaining that a misplaced container can have a domino effect that creates more work and delays.
He said other complications, such as ship delays, weather factors and equipment repairs, can also be more easily handled when workers are on-site rather than operating the equipment.
TO survey 2018 by global consultancy McKinsey & Company not only suggested that productivity at automated ports fell by 7 to 15 percent, but that cost reductions were actually below expectations.
Turnbull said there may be new opportunities from technological change, but explained that there is a sense of “pride” dockworkers have that everyone does their part to keep things running smoothly, but “the machines take that away” when they introduces more automation.
Although Blit believes more automation is needed, he said steps must be taken to protect livelihoods, noting that robotic automation is more likely to displace people at the “bottom end of the distribution ladder” while computerization tends to impact on the medium scale. jobs.
“If it’s a small group that’s bearing the cost, we need to make sure that we’re helping those people get back into training, maybe with other support, and not just leaving them, you know, hanging out to dry.” ,” he said.
the early edition5:26Union raises concerns about automation after the feds approved a major expansion at the Roberts Bank container terminal.