Hong Kong bus drivers and KMB management locked in urgent talks as strike threats escalate
Last-ditch effort comes hours after protesters serve company ultimatum to meet their union leader and discuss demands relating to pay, job pressure
Management and drivers were locked in emergency talks on Monday night over a pay dispute as Hong Kong’s largest franchised bus company faced escalating strike threats amid the fallout from the crash that killed 19 passengers earlier this month.
The last-ditch effort to break the deadlock came hours after protesting drivers served an ultimatum in the afternoon giving KMB management until 2am on Tuesday to meet their union leader and discuss their demands.
Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan called for calm, expressing hope that both sides could thrash out a compromise.
By 4pm on Monday, around 20 protesting drivers were staging a sit-in outside KMB’s offices in Kowloon Bay.
Protest leader Yip Wai-lam, whose newly formed Full-time KMB Driver Alliance was behind a wildcat strike over the weekend, warned of “escalated actions” if they did not get a satisfactory reply from company bosses by the deadline.
“You will see,” was all she would say when asked what action they had in mind.
One of their demands was to scrap an annual performance appraisal which drivers complained was putting them under too much pressure. They also urged their employers and the government to launch public education campaigns in light of recent clashes which have seen passengers verbally abusing and even physically assaulting drivers for skipping stops or for failing to arrive on schedule.
And they urged the company to consult them before working out policies concerning drivers.
“It is not my personal issue. It concerns all bus drivers, and the safety of passengers,” Yip said. “We are trying to be reasonable and are allowing the senior people time to hold meetings and consider our demands.”
Drivers began the sit-in on Monday after talks planned for the afternoon between Yip and KMB management were cancelled because company bosses would only meet her as an individual employee under regular procedures, not as the representative of the new alliance.
Yip accused management of a lack of sincerity, and declined to attend the meeting, calling on supporting drivers to go directly to the Kowloon Bay office to doorstep senior managers. But late at night she joined the meeting, saying she was representing the alliance.
The alliance was supported by the 400-member Staff Rights Association KMB, whose chairman Li Kwok-wah warned of strikes if Yip ended up getting sacked.
Last week the Motor Transport Workers General Union’s KMB branch, the operator’s biggest labour union, struck a deal with management to ease pressure on drivers and include performance-based bonuses in taking their basic monthly pay package to HK$15,300 (US$1,955). However, Yip and others were not satisfied and formed their new union to push for HK$18,000 per month.
KMB employs around 8,300 full-time drivers, who have formed at least five different labour unions.
Yip’s new union, which claims to represent 1,000 drivers, staged a strike on Saturday with “at least a dozen” taking part, but bus operations and traffic across the city were mostly unaffected. The industrial action ended after KMB agreed to meet Yip on Monday.
Working conditions at KMB are under intense scrutiny after the city’s deadliest road accident in nearly 15 years. The tragedy put the focus on overworked and underpaid drivers, prompting the government to promise a comprehensive investigation into bus safety as a whole.
Unions complained that a lack of fresh talent because of low salaries had led to overreliance on part-time drivers to ease the manpower shortage.
KMB drivers should settle differences with company through talks, Hong Kong’s No 2 official Matthew Cheung says
The driver involved in the Tai Po accident was a part-time worker who reported his occupation as a cook.
Last Friday, the government announced new guidelines for bus companies that cut maximum working hours and increased rest time for drivers.
Meanwhile, staff and management of Citybus and New World First Bus are set to begin pay talks on Wednesday.
NWS Holding chief executive officer Tsang Yam-pui declined to comment on the company’s proposals. “There is no fixed proposal; of course we will reference what other bus companies have done, but we will discuss matters depending on our own situation,” he said.