The long working hours of bus drivers have been in focus following last month’s Sham Shui Po crash, which left three people dead and dozens injured. It has been revealed that 18 per cent of about 3,700 Citybus and New World First Bus drivers work for more than 12 hours a day, and many work for over 13 hours. The driver involved in the accident had worked for more than 13 hours in the preceding few days.
Hong Kong’s roads are among the busiest in the world and we are proud of our public transport system, which outperforms many other cities. It is safe, clean, affordable and efficient. It is also built on the sacrifice and hard work of many unsung heroes who put up with a harsh and demanding daily working environment, with long hours and not enough rest.
Driving a fully loaded bus with around 100 people on board is a big responsibility, and drivers need a lot of concentration to ensure a safe journey. Unfortunately, the basic pay of bus drivers for normal duty shifts (already long at 10 hours) is not enough to make ends meet, so they have to take on additional hours. Hong Kong bus drivers also have the additional responsibility of ensuring passengers pay correct fares.
By contrast, drivers in many countries have less responsibility and so can be more focused; also, they enjoy much higher salaries. In Finland, a bus driver’s salary and shift allowance can add up to nearly 60 per cent of a university professor’s pay. Yes, they have to pay much higher taxes; the price of a Big Mac hamburger in Helsinki is twice that in Hong Kong. However, studies suggest that the well-being and/or happiness index in Finland is much higher than ours.
The tragic accident in Sham Shui Po is a wake-up call to the community to re-examine the salary structure for blue-collar workers. As our economy flourishes, we must ensure our success does not come at the expense of workers, their safety and well-being.
Excessively long working hours have been shown to be harmful to physical and mental health and are related to unhealthy living behaviour, including smoking, drinking and a lack of exercise, as well as anxiety and insomnia. Good family relationships are the first casualty. Japanese companies have been fined by courts for making employees work long hours. In some cases, suicides occur from overwork and stress, as well.
Of course, if you work more, you can earn more, but there must be some objective threshold for not being overworked. It is interesting that a 14-hour limit has been set for bus drivers by the Transport Department. Have they consulted occupational health experts? What should be the maximum driving hours allowed in such a crowded city? Promoting well-being among workers is more than just an agreement between employers and staff, especially since they do not enjoy the same level of negotiating and bargaining powers.
Any responsible employer knows that maintaining a healthy working environment benefits everyone. Hong Kong should not put itself on survival mode, and we should aim at a high quality of living and working, sharing the success. Worker unions have yet to use their collective bargaining power, but it is in the best interests of the community to look after low-skilled workers, who make up the majority of the working population. So many outsourced workers are not treated well by employers. Their voices have never been properly heard. It should be the responsibility of the government to protect them from exploitation.
We also need to have more caring companies, and not just in terms of donations or charity work; they need to cultivate a caring environment for workers.
Hong Kong will soon be facing a labour shortage, it is important that we sustain the quality of our workforce. Hong Kong is positioned as a global metropolis, our competitiveness index for business has improved considerably since last year. But what does it mean? And what is our aim of economic and business development? It is the well-being of the population.
If our record of impressive economic development is built on the sacrifices of our workers, it is not something we should be proud of. At the end of the day, we would be paying a huge social price for short-term economic benefit.
Paul Yip is chair professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong