Two extremes

COMMENT: It turns out that 2016 wasn’t such a bad year for the larger container terminal operators, despite the shroud of negativity caused by civil upset and political unrest, often intertwined, writes Carly Fields.

ICTSI celebrated a 12% throughput increase, pushing volumes to 8.7m teu. DP World bumped volumes up 3.2% to 63.7m teu. APM Terminals handled 37.3m teu, up 3.6% including the TCB additions to the portfolio, or up 1% taking out that distortion. PSA International handled 67.6m teu, growth of 5.5%. While at the lower end of the multi-terminal club ranking – but eager to be playing with the ‘big boys’ - Yilport saw throughput at its container terminals climb 5% to 3.93m teu.


There are, it seems, enough container movements out there to keep the big operators in the black. Although with total container trade growth projected at 1.8% for 2016 by Alphaliner, the larger operators are gaining at the expense of the smaller.


That has not happened by accident: one issue that stood out in the relevant annual reports is that it is no longer enough to simply handle ever-greater numbers of boxes. Today and tomorrow, it’s about harnessing efficiencies, streamlining operations and getting leaner and fitter. Investment in training, digitalisation and optimisation are the cornerstones of successful strategies going forward.


Yet, many operators acknowledged the continued “challenging environment” and that 2017 could still present roadblocks. Labour could be the most significant.


APM Terminals is already sweating from the wrath of unions in Gothenburg where on/off strikes have plagued the terminal for almost a year. But that might be small fry compared with the next wave of industrial action.


Spain’s stevedore unions have already tried for Europe-wide strikes in solidarity with their members facing reforms to bring them in line with European regulations. While it’s rhetoric at the moment, the International Transport Workers’ Federation is as persistent as a dog with a bone once it gets its teeth into an issue. Slowdowns throughout February had already cost the Port of Valencia E30m by the beginning of March.


Stateside, the International Longshoremen’s Association has been rattling cages in Congress. There was talk of nationwide strike action, but that was quickly quashed by the ILA as it sought mediation in Washington. Still, tensions continue to run high. ICTSI’s departure from Oregon is a stark reminder of what labour discontent can ultimately lead to.


So, it’s a picture of two extremes: while handling prospects appear to be good, labour tensions at boiling point in Europe and the US are undoubtedly bad. The figures confirm that there is still plenty of upside to the industry, but that has to be weighed against the single-mindedness of labour unions who can orchestrate the death of a terminal if they so wish.  


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