container being placed in docks

Automation at the Port of Rotterdam: Do the benefits also reach the dockworkers?

Is automation in the port of Rotterdam benefiting everyone fairly? Kick-Starter researcher José L. Gallegos delves into this question with his ongoing research ‘Inequality and Automation at the Port of Rotterdam’. In this interview, Gallegos discusses his research process, main findings, and his main insights.

What did you set out to study and what is the importance of your research?

The topic of our Kick-Starter application was centered on the implementation of automation technologies at the Port of Rotterdam. Our interest lies in exploring both the advantages and challenges such changes pose to the workforce and understanding the collective responses of workers through unions and works councils.

When considering the overall theme of the grant, I view resilience in this context as ensuring that the workforce of Port is not just equipped with the necessary skills for adapting to continuous technological advancements but is also appropriately compensated. Numerous studies highlight the tendency of automation to worsen inequality, primarily because these innovations often replace human labor, rendering the skills of some workers obsolete. The problem is aggravated when these individuals are not afforded opportunities for reskilling. Ultimately, neglecting to consider every stakeholder during technological innovation processes fails to enhance Rotterdam’s resilience. Instead, it merely prioritizes efficiency and profit maximization, but it should be associated with broader societal objectives.

Ultimately, the main insight I have obtained from this study is that the outcomes of automation are not technical but political decisions

José Luis Gallegos

Rotterdam School of Management EUR

PhD Candidate

How did you conduct this research?

Our research is currently underway, with a focus on conducting interviews with a wide range of stakeholders, including workers, union representatives, managers, industry experts, and technology consultants. We are also examining archival resources, such as news articles that record labor strikes and other union activities at the Port. Early insights are beginning to surface, and we are in the stages of drafting policy recommendations for our whitepaper.

Through our analysis we have realized that unions are very strategic actors capable of assessing not only the immediate effects of automation but also their distributional outcomes: who are ultimately the winners and losers of it. They see automation can lead to job displacement, it also can reduce safety hazards and monotonous tasks.

Now, beyond these immediate effects at the shop floor, an interesting question that we see unions asking is: how are the productivity gains derived from automation distributed? This was intriguing for me, as it means rejecting the outcome of automation as a given. Labor costs can be reduced, which is good for the competitiveness of the Port of Rotterdam, but what do the workers get in exchange for giving up their jobs? Can you use the profits derived from reducing labor costs to invest in human capital?

Ultimately, the main insight I have obtained from this study is that the outcomes of automation are not technical but political decisions. In environments where unions are still relatively influential, workers can negotiate, to a certain extent, the terms of technological change. In light of this realization, the more we move forward, the more we are interested in understanding in this research how unions assess the effects of technologies and how they are trying to influence the outcomes.


Are there any specific outcomes or recommendations you hope to achieve through this project to promote just resilience within the port sector?

As we conclude our study, our attention turns towards the creation of a white paper. This document is intended to be a report that offers recommendations for enhancing employment relationships within the port regarding technological changes.

We are exploring the idea of introducing a “labor impact” category into the evaluations container terminals undertake when deciding on automation and its extent. Normally the focus is on return on investment, but the human side is overlooked. Ensuring that this is considered could encourage the industry to incorporate the workers’ perspectives.


My personal motivation

During a presentation of our project, someone asked me why I was so invested in the issues facing the Port. I’ve come to feel a deep gratitude towards this city, because people have made me feel incredibly welcome and I’ve been especially drawn to its port identity. As automation is happing everywhere, the best way to make sure it takes place in a just manner is to include the interests of the workers. I have learned this from my parents who were union leaders for many years. Through my research, I hope to give back in a meaningful way. This is also one of the reasons I decided to apply for the Kickstarter grant. It targets scholars who want to create a societal impact in the delta region. The call for innovative and daring ideas was also very appealing. It was not only about research, but research with impact.