Common sense and international solidarity prevail: Auckland ports abandon failed automation drive
New Zealand’s largest port would have saved $65 million if workers had listened to the risks of automation.
The world’s largest transport union, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), has joined the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) in supporting the Ports of Auckland’s decision to abandon its costly automating.
ITF President and ITF Dockers’ Section Chairman Paddy Crumlin has welcomed the Ports of Auckland’s announcement to end the Fergusson Container Terminal automation project.
“I want to reiterate the words of Auckland Ports CEO Roger Gray ‘This is a positive move that will bring relief to many people in Auckland Ports and the wider supply chain,’ Crumlin said. .
“The stark reality here for Ports of Auckland, and its sole shareholder and owner, Auckland Council, is that this decision and the $65 million NZD write-off would never have happened had management appreciated the knowledge and expertise that its staff makes decisions about increasing the port’s capacity, productivity and profitability.
“The main lesson here – which I doubt is found in management’s review of the fiasco, or in the advice of ‘independent’ experts – is that you have to listen to your workers. When the people doing the heavy lifting from work in a place like Auckland Ports say “this project is not suitable”, “the technology is not ready”, and they even tell you “the technology is dangerous, we are worried about our lives” : you have to listen to your workers,” Crumlin insisted.
“Coming out of this, I would expect Auckland Council to show that it has learned its lesson in this regard, and therefore its first act should be to put a worker on the Ports of Authority board. Auckland. What other justification do we need that the people who know this port better than anyone not only need to be consulted, but that their collective views need to be represented and valued at the decision-making table,” Crumlin said. “Auckland Ports have learned the hard way the cost of ignoring your workforce, other port operators should take note not to make the same mistake,” he said.
Automation and Auckland: overbudgeting, overspending and over-mediatization
When Auckland Ports first announced their automation plans in 2015, they had just emerged from a long dispute with unionized waterfront workers. Management said that in the initial phase of the project, some 50 to 70 of the port’s 320 stevedores would be replaced by automated transporters, with more to follow by the project’s scheduled completion: 2019. By then, the port claimed, automation would have increased its container handling capacity by just over 900,000 TEUs per year, to around 1.6 million TEUs.
But seven years later, the project is still not completed. Instead, it was marred by delays, security issues, and actually hurt port productivity.
In November 2020, one of the new automated horse jumpers lost control and slammed into a pile of others. In June 2021, another went “rogue” due to a software glitch and hit a container. The port company has temporarily suspended the use of the machines pending a safety review. Software glitches reportedly regularly took operators offline.
Each transporter weighs 70 tons unloaded, and more than 100 tons in total when carrying a full box. They move across the quay at over 22 kilometers per hour – a sheer force easily capable of killing a person.
The beleaguered port project has proven to be a drag on Auckland’s overall freight throughput (measured in boxes per hour rate) at a time of record container transfer demand amid a strong upturn in consumption in wealthy countries like New Zealand.
Dockworkers’ unions are looking for a ‘pivotal’ element to help the community see the rising costs of automation plagued by problems
MUNZ National Secretary Craig Harrison thanked the ITF and the international solidarity of dockers’ unions globally which he said was key in influencing the board to stop automation in the terminal.
“As soon as management announced their plans, we contacted Paddy Crumlin and the ITF Dockers section. Within weeks, Paddy had brought in a delegation from their automation task force to meet with government and big players,” Harrison said.
“Everything they said would happen, happened. We warned them that there would be no increase in productivity. We were right. We said there will be higher costs for importers and exporters. We were right.
“Management ignored these facts. It was clear to us at the time that their goal was not to improve productivity, but to remove organized labor from the waterfront,” Harrison said.
During the project, the union ran a community campaign demonstrating to the New Zealand public, and in particular Auckland council and the business sector, that rising costs were a direct result of the disruption caused by the automating.
“We had a situation where importers and exporters were being charged more for delayed shipments or unused boxes at the docks because software glitches in automated equipment and other delays were slowing movement through the port,” said Harrison. “Maersk Line even introduced a NZD 400 surcharge for customers wishing to use the port, as the company tried to recoup the cost of their ships idle due to congestion.”
“It took seven years for the port to realize that this project was never fit for purpose. The sad thing is that the taxpayers of Auckland would not have lost tens of millions of dollars if they had listened to us and the ITF. Our community could have built a new library with that money, a park for the kids, or repaired the trains,” Harrison concluded.
About the ITF:
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic federation run by affiliates of transport workers’ unions, recognized as the world’s leading transport authority. We fight with passion to improve working life; connecting unions and worker networks in 147 countries to secure rights, equality and justice for their members. We are the voice of nearly 20 million women and men who move the world.
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