For Hong Kong’s elderly minibus and taxi drivers, health issues, low pay make for a tough road
With little time for meals and rest and no shortage of pressure from passengers, industry veterans warn there is little to lure young people to their trade
Hong Kong native Chan Fung-yuen served as a minibus driver for 40 years until last year, when he was forced to quit because of his health.
At 70, Chan is one of the city’s 210,000 licensed public transport drivers over the age of 60, and it is a group whose involvement in accidents has nearly tripled in the past decade, according to government figures.
“I wanted to earn more but my health did not allow me,” Chan said. “For my own safety and that of others, I thought I should stop driving.”
Chan believed green minibus drivers had the toughest life among all those working as public vehicle drivers. The industry was thus unattractive for young people.
He blamed a lack of restroom time for his own deteriorating health, which has included surgery on his prostate glands and another to remove his gallstones.
“I could be stuck in traffic for two hours,” he recalled. “I used to hold it all the time.”
Chan had to work nine to 10 hours a day, he added, sometimes without enough time for meals and rest.
Low Shih-cheng, 65, has worked as a taxi driver for 45 years and described similar challenges.
“We need to visit the bathroom more frequently as we get older, but we’re often not allowed to park in front of toilets,” he said.
Low gave the example of driving all the way from Central to Mid-Levels to find a public toilet with a parking space, only to see a policeman standing ready to affix a ticket to his windscreen to charge him for illegal parking.
He recalled a recent situation in which a passenger asked to be let off at a restricted area – a request he refused. But the customer later complained to officials and Low eventually received a warning letter.
“The government blamed me for refusing to break the law,” Low said, characterising his dilemma as being caught between official rules and what customers want.
Chan echoed the sentiment, noting some customers’ attitude compounded their work pressure.
He said sometimes when he reminded passengers to pay, he was greeted with yelling or foul language.
“Hong Kong is a distorted society. People groan all the time.”
Chan also complained of a lack of support from his employer.
“The bosses asked me to look after the money box, but they’d never stand up for you when passengers complain about you.”
Hong Kong minibus drivers earn only between HK$450 (US$57) and HK$470 a day, the retired driver estimated. This is why many young people switch to bus companies that offer more benefits after a few years of work.
Taxi drivers faced comparable difficulties, Low said. Their earnings shrank from HK$700 a day decades ago to HK$450 per day, after deducting rental and fuel costs.
He added that taxi drivers must pay a deposit of HK$12,000 upon renting a vehicle, and the sum would be forfeited in the event of a crash.
“In the past, taxi drivers were like the son of god. Now we earn the minimum wage.”
Insufficient benefits and the lack of a pension system were deterring young people from joining the industry, Low said.
“At 65, I only have HK$100,000 in my pension fund. How many years can I sustain myself with that amount? How can I not drive?”
Taxi drivers are self-employed, meaning they are ineligible for the 5 per cent contribution Mandatory Provident Fund – Hong Kong’s retirement savings scheme – that employers must pay employees.
Low said many taxi drivers were in fact retirees, including some from other industries who sought to make pocket money.
Leung Wing-chak, 73, said he would keep driving his taxi despite having worked in the trade for 35 years. He explained he wanted to earn a few hundred dollars daily and had nothing else to do.
“Many need to drive to earn a living, but I don’t have to,” Leung added. “Some spent too much when they were young and gambled too much.”
Low, who said he would continue driving as well, believed the health condition of elderly drivers was not a safety concern.
“When you’re older and react slower, you drive slower too. Older drivers line up at taxi queues and have some time to rest.”