Accidents and personal safety in Hong Kong

Long hours, difficult customers, unequal pay and few toilet breaks. Why work could be killing Hong Kong bus drivers – and their passengers

  • A number of serious traffic accidents in recent years has put the working conditions and well-being of bus drivers in focus
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 1:38pm

Bus driver Lee Chun-ming remembers the day he worked almost 24 hours non-stop.

It was a particularly busy day during the peak travel season, and he started driving his tour bus at 4am, stopping at several hotels to pick up tourists to take to the airport.

He did three more round trips between the airport and hotels, a couple of sightseeing and shopping trips in between, and did not get his 45-minute break until 6.30pm.

Then he took a group to the Peak Tram station on Garden Road and sent them back to their hotels, but he was not done yet. He received a final job, to pick up a group from the airport and take them to their hotels.

It was 3am when he got home.

After seven years as a tour bus driver, he felt he could not cope any more with the long hours and demands of the job.

In 2009 he quit and joined Citybus, one of Hong Kong’s biggest public bus service providers. Now he has regular pay, more tolerable working hours and regular breaks, though other issues grate.

“As an employee who joined the company after 2004, my base salary is lower than those who’d been here before that year. I get paid less for overtime, and have no paid sick leave at all,” explains Lee, the vice-chairman of Citybus Limited Employees Union.

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“My colleagues sometimes struggle to decide whether to apply for sick leave because it would mean earning less. But we all know that driving while we’re under the weather is potentially dangerous.”

A number of serious traffic accidents in recent years has put the working conditions and well-being of bus drivers in focus.

Three people were killed and dozens hurt in September 2017 when a double-decker Citybus mounted a pavement and ploughed into pedestrians in busy Sham Shui Po.

Earlier this year, a KMB crash in Tai Po left 19 dead and more than 60 injured.

In November, a coach rammed into a stationary taxi on a highway in Tsing Yi, killing six – including the driver – and injuring more than 30. And, just this week, a 19-seater school bus rolled down a slope in North Point, leaving four people dead.

According to data from the Transport Department, from January to November 2018, there were 30 fatalities in accidents involving franchised buses. In the same period, there were four fatalities in accidents involving non-franchised buses.

Hong Kong’s three largest franchised public bus operators – KMB, Citybus and its sister firm New World First Bus (NWFB) – serve almost four million passengers on 600 routes every day. Together, they have a fleet of more than 5,600 buses.

KMB employs about 8,600 bus drivers Citybus has 2,200 and NWFB 1,600.

Although those working for the three major operators enjoy relatively better working conditions than their non-franchised counterparts such as tour bus drivers, industry representatives said they have a list of ongoing frustrations: a shortage of drivers; exhaustion from working long hours; unequal pay and benefits; demands to be punctual despite traffic congestion; and difficult customers.

Long hours and exhaustion

Tour bus drivers work for an unspecified amount of time every day, with orders coming in throughout the day. A typical work day could easily stretch to 18 hours.

While full-time, franchised public bus drivers are hired to drive eight hours a day, most work at least one to two hours overtime. Some end up driving the maximum of 13 hours a day.

In June this year, Ho Kai-man retired after three decades of driving a bus 18 hours a day. At 59, he took early retirement because the job’s sedentary nature was taking a toll on his health.

“I would be out of breath just trying to catch the bus, or simply having a conversation. I had lower back pain, jogger’s heel, and high blood pressure, which even caused bleeding in my eye,” he says.

Ho says many drivers do not get enough exercise, and are confined to their vehicles for hours each day. Even bathroom breaks are irregular.

“Urinating is easy, we do it on the bus all the time by relieving ourselves into a bottle. But when we get stomach aches, that’s the hard part,” Ho says. “I’ve had to beg another tour bus driver to give me his parking space so I could find a toilet to relieve myself.”

Ho was paid a basic monthly salary of around HK$8,000 (US$1,025), but by doing more, earned about HK$27,000 in all. He had only two days off for every 14 days of work.

But he believes it was still a better deal than driving for franchised bus firms as his relatively low basic salary meant he and fellow drivers did not have to pay taxes, and got cheap public housing.

“There was consolation in knowing some people didn’t make as much as me even if they put in the same number of hours.”

On days I didn’t get enough sleep, I worried about nodding off at the wheel. Sometimes, I would have to slap myself awake
Lee Chun-ming, Citybus driver

Exhaustion remains a major issue for franchised bus drivers pulling long shifts.

Citybus driver Lee Chun-ming, 44, drove an overnight route from Sha Tin to Wah Fu for eight years, starting at 6pm and ending about 12 hours later.

“On a good day, I would sleep for six or seven hours. Sometimes, it was just difficult to fall asleep immediately. On days that I didn’t get enough sleep, I worried about nodding off at the wheel,” he admits. “Sometimes, I would have to slap myself awake.”

That changed a month ago, when Lee switched to daytime routes between town and the airport. Although he now feels more energised, he drinks less water because of the irregular toilet breaks.

“I do worry about damaging my kidneys,” he says.

The three bus union leaders tell the Post that many of their colleagues experience high blood pressure, sleep apnoea, diabetes, aching joints, and even cancer.

Unequal treatment

Lee’s main source of frustration is his company’s differential treatment of staff.

Drivers who joined the company before 2004 get a basic salary of around HK$18,000, compared to HK$16,000 for those who started later. Overtime pay varies too, with older staff earning about HK$20 more per hour.

He believes some health problems drivers experience are made worse by feeling forced to spend long hours behind the wheel.

“Many drivers under the new contract voluntarily work overtime because they feel their basic income isn’t enough. Some trade shifts just to earn more,” he says. “Not only does this worsen their health, it could also endanger the safety of pedestrians and other road users.”

Lee says he raised the issue of unequal pay with bosses, but was told staff who joined the company earlier are more experienced, and thus deserve a higher basic salary. The Post reached out to Citybus for comment but got no response.

A job advertisement on the Citybus and NWFB website says newcomers can collect up to HK$36,000 in cash gifts when they sign on. But Lee claims many new hires are likely to leave after pocketing the payouts and securing their driving licences.

Trying times

NWFB driver Lam Kam-piu, 61, highlights another issue that weighs on staff: the constant pressure to stay on schedule regardless of traffic conditions, and unreasonable passengers.

Lam, a driver for 35 years, gives the example of route No 15 between The Peak and Exchange Square in Central, a distance of about 5km.

“The road is narrow and winding – but the driver gets only 30 minutes to make it from one terminus to the other. We drive buses, not racing cars,” says Lam, chairman of the NWFB Company Staff Union.

Drivers often bear the brunt of traffic congestion, he adds.

“After spending all that time waiting in traffic, some passengers at the next stop might yell profanities at us for being late. How can we serve our customers well, when we’re always so frustrated?”

Kwok Chi-sing, 60, who recently retired from KMB after 32 years, says drivers are often the target of complaints.

“If we handle passengers poorly, it’s our fault. If a 90-year-old passenger falls while climbing to the upper deck, it’s also the driver’s fault. For this pay, it’s just not worth it.”

The road ahead

Given the serious accidents recently, experts say more needs to be done to ensure drivers are not only trained properly and rewarded adequately, but also sufficiently well physically and mentally for the demands of the job.

Calling for better pay and training for recruits, Kwok says new KMB drivers undergo only 18 days of training before going on the road. A decade ago, training lasted one month.

“Why do some bus drivers lose their way, or drive recklessly? It’s because they’re not professionals. You can’t attract the right people with wages like this,” he says.

Polytechnic University transport expert Dr Hung Wing-tat sympathises with drivers’ woes over traffic congestion and says the government has failed to address the problem which affects all motorists.

There are bus-only lanes along most busy roads, such as Des Voeux Road in Central and Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, but Hung says they are not effective.

“Unlike the railway system, bus lanes are not continuous, and their intersections are often blocked by other vehicles,” he says.

Serious thought must be given to preventing road accidents

He suggests introducing a bus rapid transit system, which would include an extended road section of at least 3km reserved for buses. Most bus lanes in Hong Kong are shorter than 1km.

“With this system, roads won’t have to be overwhelmed with multiple bus routes, and roads can be used more effectively.”

Meanwhile, Kwok hopes the government will take the lead in creating better working conditions for drivers.

“The government needs to steer bus companies in the right direction and remind them it’s not just about making money, but providing a service that benefits society. If drivers continue to work in these inhumane conditions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more people dying from bus crashes.”