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Common sense and international solidarity prevail: Ports of Auckland abandons failed automation drive

news Press Release 09 Jun 2022


The world’s largest global transport union, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), has joined the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) in supporting the decision by the Ports of Auckland to abandon its costly automation programme.

ITF President, and Chair of the ITF Dockers’ Section, Paddy Crumlin welcomed yesterday’s announcement by the Ports of Auckland to cease the automation project at the Fergusson Container Terminal.

“I want to reiterate the words of Ports of Auckland CEO Roger Gray ‘This is a positive decision which will come as a relief to many at Ports of Auckland and in the wider supply chain’,” said Crumlin. 

“The brutal reality here for Ports of Auckland, and its sole shareholder and owner, Auckland Council, is that this decision and the write-off of $65m NZD, would never have happened if management valued the knowledge and expertise that its workforce brings to decisions about lifting port capacity, productivity and profitability.”

“The major lesson here - which I doubt is to be found in management’s review of the fiasco, or within the advice from ‘independent’ experts - is that you’ve got to listen to your workers. When the people who do the heavy lifting at a place like the Ports of Auckland say ‘this project is not fit for purpose’, ‘the technology is not ready’, and they even tell you ‘the technology is dangerous, we are worried for our our lives’: you have got to listen to your workers,” urged Crumlin.

“Coming out of this I would expect Auckland Council to show they have learned their lesson in this regard, and therefore their first act should be to put a worker on the Ports of Auckland Board. What more vindication do we need that the people who know this port better than anybody else must not only be consulted, but their collective views should be represented and valued at the decision-making table,” said Crumlin. “Ports of Auckland learnt the hard way the cost of ignoring your workforce, other port operators should take note not to make the same mistake,” he said.

Paddy Crumlin - ITF President, Dockers' Section Chair and National Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia | (Credit: ITF Australia)

Automation and Auckland: Over-budget, over-time and over-hyped

When the Ports of Auckland first announced its automation plans in 2015, it was fresh off the back of a drawn out dispute with unionised waterfront workers. Management said that in the initial phase of the project, some 50-70 of the port’s 320 stevedores would be replaced by automated carriers, with more to follow by the time the project was slated for completion: 2019. By then, the port claimed, automation would have boosted its container handling capacity by just over 900,000 TEU per year, to around 1.6 million TEU.

But seven years later, the project is still not complete. Instead, it has been marred by delays, safety concerns, and has actually harmed the port’s productivity.

In November 2020 one of the new automated straddle carriers lost control and slammed into a stack of others. In June 2021, another went ‘rogue’ due to a software issue and hit a container. The port company temporarily suspended use of the machines pending a safety review. Software glitches are said to have regularly taken the carriers offline.

Each carrier weighs 70 tonnes unloaded, and over 100 tonnes total when carrying a full container box. They move across the wharf at over 22 kilometres per hour - a force of weight easily capable of killing a person.

The port’s beleaguered project has proven to be a drag on Auckland’s overall throughput of cargo (as measured in box rates per hour) at a time of record high demand to shift containers amidst a strong consumer recovery in rich countries like New Zealand.

Craig Harrison - National Secretary of the Maritime Union of New Zealand | (Credit: MUNZ)

Dockers’ unions research ‘pivotal’ in helping community see mounting costs of glitch-ridden automation

MUNZ National Secretary Craig Harrison today thanked the ITF and the international solidarity of dockers’ unions globally that he said was pivotal in influencing the Board to cease automation in the terminal.

“As soon as management said what their plans were, we reached out to Paddy Crumlin and the ITF’s Dockers’ Section. Within weeks Paddy had brought out a delegation from their automation taskforce to meet with the government and the big players,” said Harrison. 

“Every single thing they said would happen, did happen. We warned them that there wouldn’t be higher productivity. We were right. We said that there’s going to be higher costs for importers and exporters. We were right.”

“Management ignored these facts. It was clear to us at the time that their agenda was not to improve productivity, but to remove organised labour from the waterfront,” said Harrison.

Over the course of the project, the union ran a community campaign demonstrating to the New Zealand public, and particularly to Auckland Council and business sector, that rising costs were a direct result of disruptions caused by the automation drive.

“We had a situation where importers and exporters were getting charged more for either delayed shipment or boxes sitting idle on the wharves because software glitches in the automated gear and other delays were slowing down movements in the port,” said Harrison. “Maersk Line even introduced a $400 NZD surcharge for customers wishing to use the port, as the company tried to recover the cost of their ships sitting idle due to the congestion.”

“It took the port seven years to realise this project was never fit for purpose. The sad thing is that ratepayers of Auckland wouldn't have lost tens of millions of dollars if they’d listened to us, and the ITF. Our community could have built a new library with that money, a park for the kids, or fixed the trains,” concluded Harrison.






About the ITF: The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation of transport workers’ unions recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. We fight passionately to improve working lives; connecting trade unions and workers’ networks from 147 countries to secure rights, equality and justice for their members. We are the voice of the almost-20 million women and men who move the world. 


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