Port Automation: Friend or Foe?

Development of modern technology has ushered in a myriad of changes into the maritime industry. Introduction of complex navigation softwares aboard ships, giant remotely-operated cranes to handle cargo and automated equipment at ports has made navigation and cargo handling operations at ports much easier and more efficient. But what does this mean for the human factor and workers whose jobs are being taken over by the machines? 

World Maritime News spoke with dockers’ representatives of the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) to hear whether modern technology can be seen as a friend or foe to workers at ports.

The following interview features replies from Terje Samuelsen, ETF Dockers’ Section ChairTorben Seebold, ETF Dockers’ Section vice-chair and Niek Stam, member of the ETF Dockers’ Section steering committee and leader of the Dutch union FNV Havens.

WMN: How will port automation, especially in Europe, influence the workers’ job guarantee? What is ETF’s stance on the battle between the unions and the decreasing need for workers as ports become smarter?

Samuelsen: It all depends of course on how automation processes are dealt with. We are not here to deny technological progress, but we should first of all take a step back and analyse why and how decisions on automating ports are done. What is certain is that we will always oppose automation that is done with union-busting purposes. We do not believe that automation is the ultimate solution, in some terminals it may be needed, but there should always be an ex-ante thorough analysis of the consequences in terms of employment and working conditions, economic profitability, flexibility. Ports with less workers or without workers are not necessarily smarter: we have in Europe cases of traditional terminals that are much more efficient and profitable than automated ones.

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