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Union fears robots will kill jobs in controversial B.C. port expansion

International Longshore and Warehouse Union urging rejection of Roberts Bank Terminal 2 by Deltaport
Global Container Terminals said Deltaport is their third biggest container terminal in North America. (Grace Kennedy photo)

By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter THE TYEE

The B.C. dockworkers’ union wants the federal government to block the $3.5-billion Roberts Bank container port project to protect members’ jobs.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union says the port expansion will introduce technology and automation and set the stage for job losses at other West Coast ports.

The union wrote a letter to the federal cabinet last week urging it to reject the Roberts Bank Terminal 2. The controversial project would transform more than 1.7 square kilometres of subtidal and tidal waters into a container port capable of handling 260 ships and more than 2.4 million containers a year. It would be connected to the current Deltaport terminal just north of the Tsawwassen BC Ferries terminal.

In the open letter, ILWU Canada president Rob Ashton said he shared concerns with environmental groups on how the project’s environmental impact would harm fish and seabirds.

But he also worries the new terminal would replace workers with machines.

The Port of Vancouver, proposing the project, is a federal government agency. It says decisions on automation would be left to the private company selected to operate the new port.

But Ashton believes the new port could bring a level of automation that would force competing container ports to also automate their operations.

“It’s going to force the rest of the terminals to automate faster than they were doing it otherwise. That’s what we want the Canadian government to understand,” Ashton said. “This is going to destroy a lot of people’s livelihoods.”

The port has described Roberts Bank Terminal 2 as “semi-automated,” just like the two other major private container ports in B.C. Those are Deltaport, operated by Global Container Terminals, and DP World’s Fairview Container Terminal in Prince Rupert.

A number of jobs — like gantry crane operation — would still be done by humans.

In an August presentation, the port said it was making the decision to limit automation “despite the trend towards greater container port automation over the last two decades” — something the ILWU has resisted.

But the presentation says some automation decisions would be left up to the private company that eventually runs the port.

Port authority spokesperson Alex Munro said in an email that “semi-automated terminals are becoming increasingly common in OECD countries like Canada.”

“In line with most large, recently constructed container terminals, the proposed Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project is expected to include some automation,” Munro wrote.”The level of automation is subject to final terminal configuration, which would be determined by the terminal operator.”

But Ashton fears the result will be lost jobs.

“Their version of semi-automated and my version of semi-automated must be completely different — in different realms, in different galaxies,” he said.

Ashton’s letter to federal ministers comes weeks before a final decision on the decade-long project is expected from the federal Impact Assessment Agency, charged with “delivering high-quality impact assessments that look at both positive and negative environmental, economic, social and health impacts of potential projects.”

Stephane Perrault, a spokesman for that agency, said the legislated deadline for a decision is April 29.

Ashton said he expects it will come before that date.

If approved, the port says construction could be completed within six years.

The authority, a federal agency, says the project is vital to accommodate growing Pacific trade, which it believes will outstrip capacity at existing container ports.

In 2021, the authority says Vancouver’s ports processed a total of 3.7 million “TEUs,” a measurement unit equivalent to one 20-foot-long container box.

But by 2040, the authority and its consultants estimate the region’s ports will need to handle between six million and 9.8 million TEUs, depending on how quickly trade with Asian markets grows. The authority says failing to build the port will cripple the supply chain and force more of that commerce to flow through competing ports in the U.S.

The port authority says the expanded port could support thousands of jobs across the supply chain.

Munro said the development would support 850 “direct long-term” jobs at the terminal itself. The authority believes the downstream effects of the port would create more than 17,000 jobs in the economy as a whole.

But the project has faced opposition from some environmental groups, local governments and now the ILWU, who have long feared robots could claim their members’ jobs.

In 2019, a lockout at the docks ended in a five-year collective agreement that, among other things, guaranteed the ILWU membership on a committee to discuss further automation projects. ILWU Canada commissioned a report that year, arguing that pursuing automation in British Columbia’s ports could cost thousands of jobs on the docks.

Ashton says the ILWU is instead backing two different container port expansion proposals.

Deltaport, the operating name of Global Container Terminals Ltd., is awaiting a federal decision on whether it can build a fourth berth at its existing container port on Roberts Bank. And DP World, which operates the Fairview Container Terminal in Prince Rupert, has applied to expand that worksite to increase its capacity.

The difference, Ashton said, is that those operators have made assurances to dockworkers their jobs won’t be affected.

“They’ve actually put levels of automation in, but they brought us along with them. They heard our concerns, we’ve made adjustments and we’ve protected jobs,” he said.

“A real friction point in these conversions is always what this will mean for existing jobs,” said Sunil Johal, a University of Toronto professor studying automation. Some argue robots could take over dangerous or time-consuming repetitive tasks, which might make the worksite more efficient and ultimately generate more jobs. Others, though, argue robots will simply replace workers.

“That benefit-cost calculus is particularly stark in an area like a port,” Johal said, because of the downstream effects its operations have on sectors that depend on those goods.

Ports across the world have automated a growing number of jobs in recent years, including the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California.

“It seems that the trend, especially with new ports and new facilities, those are much more likely to be automated or semi-automated,” Johal said. “I think it’s a fair assumption that as the ports that Vancouver engages with automate and digitize their operations, there’s going to be more pressure on Vancouver and Canadian ports to do the same.”

But there has also been debate on whether automating ports is even worth it. A study released by the Center for Innovation in Transport in Spain, which was commissioned by unions representing dockworkers, argued there were no productivity improvements brought by automation.

A 2018 study from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found automated ports were safer, but also found productivity actually decreased, and that automation required significant upfront capital investment.

“There have not been as many productivity gains from automating ports as was first thought, at least in the past several years,” Johal said. He suspects that if the expansion goes ahead, a private operator will think carefully about how much they want to spend on automation.

“Before they start making multibillion-dollar investments, they’re going to take a hard look at it,” he said.