Hong Kong taxi trade hit by driver shortage as young are put off by its bad reputation

The pay is poor, cabbies are held in low esteem by the public and there is little prospect of making a career, Post finds

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2016, 4:33pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 11:18am

Hong Kong’s beleaguered taxi industry is grappling with an ageing workforce and driver shortages as less young people opt to become cabbies due to the trade’s bad reputation and lacklustre career prospects, the Post has learned.

Even if they are willing to drive, young people prefer ride-hailing platform Uber, according to taxi owner groups, as low incomes make it hard to build a career.

According to Transport Department figures obtained by the Post, among 220,440 holders of taxi driving licences, only 1,110, or 0.5 per cent, are aged 21 to 29, compared with 4.76 per cent aged 70 or above. About 78 per cent, or 172,150, are 50 to 69.

Although not all licence holders become drivers, the figures show that the industry is dominated by cabbies aged 50 or above.

To obtain a licence, an applicant must be at least 21, have held a regular licence for three years and pass a written test. When a taxi driver reaches the age of 70 he or she needs to undergo a physical fitness test every year to ensure they are fit for the job.

At present there are 18,138 taxis in Hong Kong – 15,250 red urban taxis, 2,838 green taxis that serve the New Territories and 50 blue taxis in Lantau – with about 40,000 drivers.

Once regarded as a respectable profession, taxi driving nowadays is scorned by many youngsters due to the mounting clamour in recent years against cabbies’ bad conduct, including overcharging, taking unnecessarily long routes, and cherry-picking or refusing hires.

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There were 2,590 complaints against taxi services from April 1 to the end of June this year, a rise of 18.4 per cent compared with the previous quarter, according to the Transport Complaints Unit.

A spokesman for the Association of Taxi Industry Development, Ng Kam-wah, estimated there was a driver shortage of about 10 per cent at present, forcing taxi owners to rely on elderly part-timers to fill the gap. But many of them refuse to work on weekends and public holidays.

“It has been very difficult hiring young people as cabbies. For the past six years, I have not encountered any jobseekers under the age of 30. Most of them were over 50 years old and many of them are retirees,” Ng said.

“Since cabbies’ net income is low at around HK$15,000 per month, coupled with a tarnished image caused by some rotten apples in the trade, young people are not interested in working as cabbies. They’d rather work for Uber.”

Ng said the low pay made it hard for drivers to climb the career ladder and become taxi owners.

Uber, a ride-hailing firm treading on legal grey area for providing luxurious rides without a hire car permit, has been deemed to pose a serious threat to the city’s taxi business.

The association recently fitted CCTV cameras to taxis in a trial scheme aimed at raising the quality of service. Ng hoped the government would agree to raise fares in order to lure new blood.

Chau Kwok-keung, spokesman for the Anti-Taxi Franchises Concern Group, believed the core issue was to enhance the overall image of taxi drivers with creative thinking.

“Youngsters are not attracted by taxi driving because it is regarded as a low-skilled job without career prospects,” he said.

Professional training, government regulation and improved services were among the things that could help shape up the trade’s image, Chau suggested.

“We need new thinking to transform the image of taxi drivers. I think all the stakeholders in the taxi trade, as well as the government, should exchange views on how to upgrade the service quality of cabbies,” he said.

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Taxi driver Cheung Pui-keung, 38, who works the 5pm to 5am shift, was unfazed by public criticism of the industry. He started the job six years ago and earns about HK$20,000 a month. He has no regrets about his work despite often having to deal with drunk customers who sometimes vomited in his taxi or threw tantrums for no reason.

“I chose this job because I found it very flexible. But as a taxi driver, there is always a risk,” he admitted, adding that he had tried to persuade his peers to work as cabbies but to no avail.

“Some drunk clients are very difficult to handle. They may wrongly accuse me of doing something I didn’t do, or try to physically attack me. To protect myself sometimes I need to videotape the ride.”