18 Nov 2020

Automation problems behind Auckland port delays - wharfie

From Checkpoint, 5:12 pm on 18 November 2020

An Auckland wharfie estimates Ports of Auckland is half as efficient as it used to be because of problems switching to an automated system to load and unload freight containers.

Some ships are waiting up to 12 days to unload at the port, and many retailers fear their shelves will not be full as they approach the festive season.

On Tuesday, Ports of Auckland general manager of communications Matt Ball told Checkpoint Covid-19 had caused delays to the full roll-out of automation, but he said the system was working efficiently and was not to blame for the problems.

Ball also said the ports were short of about 50 staff, including crane drivers, straddle operators and lashers. He said the company's performance at the moment was not good enough.

A worker with decades of experience at the Auckland port, who Checkpoint has kept anonymous to protect his identity, said the company was not being upfront about problems with automation, and customers were getting a raw deal.

"Before automation the Ports of Auckland regularly got best performing port in Oceania. Since automations kicked in, it hasn't. So I can only put it down to automation and the lack of workability with the system," he said.

"Covid is a very convenient excuse. They had problems with automation long before Covid kicked in."

In a statement, Ball said automation was going well, but the worker who spoke to Checkpoint disagreed.

"They've got issues with communication between the crane builders and the Ports of Auckland. The software packages - numerous times they have pushed back the go-live dates because the system is just not working. Automation is a major problem."

"They've split the terminal in half, effectively using one half for storage for the automated straddles and the other half for man straddles. So when the auto straddles aren't working properly you've got half a terminal that can be accessed.

"It's not just the straddles. They've got three new cranes down the end of the berth they're having issues with. They can really only use one crane at a time when they're discharging the ship because if they try to use all three, the software shuts down.

"Basically, once they've discharged the ship they then have to turn around and move the ship round to the other, what we'll term, older cranes, so that they can load them.

"So it's double handling and moving ships. It's crazy."

Efficiency at the port was not that good, he said. "Fifty percent, if that, on what it used to be."

Acknowledging the understaffing problem, he said: "The whole system breaks down if you just don't have the guys to do it."

Retailers are desperate to get stock as the Christmas shopping season begins. The wharfie said at this time of year the service provided by Ports of Auckland was "sh--".

"If I was a business owner waiting for a container, I'd be furious."

He said he was angry to hear what Ball had told Checkpoint about the port's problems.

"It doesn't matter what I say. It doesn't matter what other people say. The company will say that's not true.

"I think the time has come where the port has got to be answerable to the people of Auckland. They seem to be a Teflon-coated company, or they think they are. They have a responsibility to people.

"I used to be a proud water-sider."

He said more workers would help solve the situation, but trying to do that before Christmas would be problematic.

"Do you train them up quickly to get them onsite, in which case then do you have non-competent workers working there just to fill the void?

"Look at the history in the last two years, you've had two deaths. I would be scared, I wouldn't want to be working in an environment where you've got people working beside me that don't have … the experience, and experience speaks volumes down there.

"Will it be fixed before Christmas? I honestly couldn't answer that… the software system, unless they can get that up and running, I can't see it happening.

"The ports have brought this on themselves really, and it's a shame."

Ports of Auckland's board chair, the chief executive, and the minister for infrastructure all declined to be interviewed by Checkpoint.

Ports of Auckland said it was working with the Ministry of Transport to resolve the backlog.

The ministry also declined an interview, but in a statement said it was leading a cross-agency group of government officials who were watching the situation closely.

It acknowledged heavy congestion of containerised shipping, particularly at the Ports of Auckland, where there had been "delays due to staff shortages and a recent fatality of a port worker".

Congestion at Asian and Australian ports has added to the problem, it said, and there was limited capacity to shift the containers to rail and road freight.

The ministry said the International Air Freight Scheme was being used to import time-sensitive, critical goods, including medicines.

The Supply Chain Interagency Group is comprised of the Ministry of Transport, Maritime New Zealand, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ministry for Primary Industries, and NZ Trade and Enterprise.