Automation at heart of labour dispute at Port of Vancouver

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      Longshore workers in Vancouver could be on strike by Monday (May 27) after giving 72-hours' strike notice.

      And one of the major reasons is the port industry's increasing reliance on machines to do work previously performed by human beings.

      On May 10, about 6,000 International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 500 members voted 98.4 percent in favour in a strike vote.

      The union has already delivered 72-hours' notice and has warned Global Containers Terminal that it could be behind picket lines.

      Mediation is continuing through the weekend.

      Last year, 147 million tonnes of cargo passed through the Port of Vancouver. It has shipping facilities on the shores of Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River, as well as at Deltaport. The port handled goods worth $200 billion in 2018.

      Local 500 president Rino Voci said in a bulletin that effective June 1, Local 500 members can work without restriction in the jurisdiction of ILWU Local 502.

      Local 502 members load, unload and check cargo along the Fraser River all the way to Roberts Bank and work as rail, yard, and ship planners at Global Containers Terminal.

      Earlier this month, ILWU Canada president Rob Ashton told the Western Producer that one of the union's major issues is automation of container terminal operations.

      According to Ashton, it has the potential to eliminate 80 to 90 percent of the labour requirements.

      Last December, the international consulting firm McKinsey & Company posted an article on its website claiming that automation can lead to more safety at ports.

      "The number of human-related disruptions falls, and performance becomes more predictable," McKinsey stated. "Yet the up-front capital expenditures are quite high, and the operational challenges—a shortage of capabilities, poor data, siloed operations, and difficulty handling exceptions—are very significant."

      It added that operating expenses can drop by 25 to 55 percent while productivity increases of 10 to 35 percent are achievable. McKinsey describes this as "Port 4.0".

      The Global Containers Terminals website mentions that it is "constantly upgrading and improving our technology, equipment, and processes so that we can continue delivering on time, every time" at its four terminals on the East and West coasts of North America.

      GCT Deltaport at Roberts Bank has three berths, two Megamax cranes, and 12 "high-speed, super post-Panamax ship-to-shore cranes".

      "Through equipment upgrades as well as process and design change, the recently completed CAD$300mm railyard expansion sustainably increased capacity by over 50%, all within its existing footprint," the company says.

      Vanterm, which is along Burrard Inlet, is described on the company's website as "among the most productive terminals in North America".

      The port industry isn't the only area of the economy where automation is creating disruptions. It's also occurring in the oil and gas industry, retail, and manufacturing, and it's expected to come soon to transportation when autonomous vehicles are on the roads.