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Automated Ports Have Dockworkers in the Netherlands Threatening Strikes

Employees and unions fear that automation at the docks in the coming years will put hundreds out of work.
An automated guided vehicle at Port of Rotterdam. Image: Bloomberg

Dock workers at the Port of Rotterdam, Europe's busiest container port, recently went on strike over increasing automation and the need for job security. Employees fear that automation at the docks in the coming years will put hundreds out of work.

The first day of strike action took place on January 7 for 24 hours after members of the FNV Havens and CNV unions voted unanimously in December to go on strike. It was the first strike at the port in 13 years, and more strikes could be on the way if an agreement isn't reached, according to FNV Havens.


The automation of container terminals at Rotterdam, the growth of activity at the port, and protecting the jobs of dockworkers is at the center of the dispute, said Niek Stam, head of FNV Havens.

According to the unions, more than 3,000 people took part in the strikes across the Port of Rotterdam. FNV Havens claims that 800 jobs are at risk with the introduction of new automated container terminals, which automate some or all of the functions of ship-to-port cranes, stacking operations, or the use of automated guided vehicles. In response, the union wants assurances of job security in place for the coming years.

"As soon as I don't believe there is any solution available I will go back to my membership and ask to go on strike again."

The building of two new highly automated terminals has been controversial [link in Dutch], leading the union to believe that older terminals will be shut down, and it has been holding talks on strike action for months.

"If you build new terminals and they have a high level of automation but you leave the current terminals with the workers, you leave them alone, there will be no problem," said Stam.

"But there is no growth in the market, so what will happen is they will take away the containers from the existing terminals to the new terminals," he claimed. "The new terminals have a high level of automation. It means we will lose jobs."

The union is asking for a guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies between now and 2020. A spokesperson for the Port of Rotterdam told Motherboard last week that talks are ongoing and there will be no more work stoppages during these negotiations. However, Niek Stam said that if nothing can be agreed, striking will be an option again.


"If it is necessary, we will not run away from that," he said, giving no specific timeline for the talks but said they will take a number of weeks. "As soon as I don't believe there is any solution available I will go back to my membership and ask to go on strike again."

The installation of highly automated technology at ports has been a point of contention for many unions in the industry in recent years.

In one example, Stam explained that in the past a crane crew at a port might consist of seven workers but in many cases this has been reduced to two or three employees working with more computerized systems.

Unlike the manufacturing industry, ports can't exactly be moved or outsourced. Automated functions provide a means to keep production and maintenance costs down as well as reducing possible injuries. The Port of Rotterdam remains extremely busy: the port reported 4.9 percent growth in the total tonnage of goods that passed through the port in 2015, driven largely by the oil market.

Similar moves toward automation have been made in some of the world's busiest ports. In Australia, ports operated by Patrick Corporation have become highly automated, with equipment like automated straddle carriers. But this month, workers at terminals in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Fremantle have gone on strike over job security for the coming years. The Maritime Union of Australia, who is involved in the strikes, did not respond to requests for comment.

In the US, unions on the west coast have stood by workers in the face of automation to secure their pay even though ports like Long Beach are becoming some of the "most automated docks" in the US.

However, the adoption of automation at ports in the US isn't moving at the same pace as Europe. A report from Drewry Maritime Research last month stated that terminal automation and dock worker unions clashes would mean significant automation "seems a long way off."