The Guardian August 16, 2000


Corrigan's robots

Ongoing reports that Patrick Stevedores boss Chris Corrigan is on the 
brink of replacing wharfies with robots at his Port Botany terminal in 
Sydney have moved the Maritime Union (MUA) to suggest he invite journalists 
and others to witness the new technology in action first hand.

The driverless robotic straddle is an automated container handling system 
that Patrick is having developed by Finnish company Kalmar Industries with 
Sydney University's Australian Centre for Field Robotics.

"We have not been involved in the development of this new technology", said 
MUA National Secretary, John Coombs. "But we have good reason to suspect 
the validity of Mr Corrigan's latest claims.

"The question is; why hasn't anyone been invited out there to see a 
demonstration of the new technology. And why do our people on the job there 
every day say the automated straddle is just left rusting most of the 
time?"

Reports on the ground from the Patrick workforce (especially from 
technicians employed there) are that the robotic straddle is far from 
working. And when they do give it an occasional test run it can only go in 
a straight line backwards and forwards. No one has ever seen it turn a 
corner.

Workers report that while the windows around the machine have been blacked 
out, when the sun is behind it you can see a silhouette that looks 
suspiciously like a person behind the wheel.

The union views the publicity around the straddle as a scare tactic, a 
bargaining chip for coming enterprise agreement negotiations, with 
management preparing to demand that workers will have to accept more labour 
cutbacks or be replaced with robots.

Automated ports do exist, the best known being in Rotterdam, Holland, a 
major port which services the whole of Europe. But the Rotterdam project 
was a greenfields site designed from scratch so that the straddles follow 
an infra-red track system embedded in the ground on set paths.

This is a far cry from the cramped, small-scale straddle operation at Port 
Botany, an operation the Howard Government is funding with millions of 
dollars.

The union believes Corrigan is also nervous about a new stevedoring company 
which is being set up in Melbourne. "This could be more about boosting the 
Patrick share price and profile in the face of some stiff competition", 
said Mr Coombs. "It is also about justifying government funding in the 
company.

"But it does say a lot about Mr Corrigan and his absolute inability to deal 
with workers as human beings."

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