Uber has urged officials to rethink increasing punishments for illegal rides, warning the livelihoods of its 14,000 drivers would be at stake if the government insisted on cracking down on the business.
The ride-sharing firm’s plea came after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said in her policy address on Wednesday that the Transport and Housing Bureau was preparing legislative amendments on increasing the penalties for illegal carriage of passengers for reward and other malpractices of taxi service to “protect the interests of passengers”.
Lam pledged to make a greater effort to improve the quality of Hong Kong’s taxi service in conjunction with the industry, including using technology and organising commendation schemes, as ways of getting drivers to improve.
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A government source said there were no plans to legalise Uber’s service, despite its popularity in Hong Kong.
Despite operating in the city for six years, Uber rides are deemed illegal without a hire-car permit, and the firm has faced strong resistance from the taxi industry, and its 18,163 licensed cabs.
The company has been calling for a partnership with the Hong Kong government to address the city’s mobility future and allow it to operate legally. But officials have stood firm in cracking down on the service, with proposed increases in penalties for drivers caught providing illegal rides.
In a Legislative Council paper last year, the government proposed doubling the maximum fine for first-time offenders to HK$10,000, with a fine of HK$25,000 (US$3,200) for subsequent convictions, and lengthening the suspension of the vehicle licence from three months to six months.
Richard Willder, Uber’s local head of public policy and government affairs, told the Post they were disappointed by the government’s plan, warning it would only hurt those hard hit by the recession.
“It is disappointing that during such a challenging economic period, the government is focused on hurting, not helping, Hongkongers who have turned to ride sharing during the pandemic,” he said.
“At a time when Hong Kong is facing its highest rate of unemployment, more than 14,000 local active driver-partners would be without the earnings they need if the government continues its push to ban ride sharing.
“We strongly recommend that the government reconsider this legislative priority, and meaningfully consult with stakeholders and industry.”
Willder said flexibility in the labour market served as a valuable tool for helping Hong Kong get back on the road to recovery, especially during periods of economic uncertainty.
“It is unclear why the government wants to penalise this sort of innovation, rather than embrace it and find ways to help Hongkongers who are doing it tough,” he said.
Ng Kwan-sing, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Taxi Council, an alliance of 42 taxi groups, said he hoped the government would overhaul the decades-old taxi operation with the support of technology, and impose deterrent penalties against Uber and other operators providing illegal rides.
“The government should facilitate the whole taxi industry to undergo a reform in terms of using technology such as apps and electronic payment, networking and fleet management,” he said.
“Nowadays there are many types of taxi apps in the market, while not many cabs have adopted e-payment methods.
“The use of technology by taxi drivers is entirely unsystematic. The government should set out different frameworks about the use of apps, flexible fares, and e-payment methods.”
Ng said the government should introduce a commendation scheme to label those quality taxi fleets as premium taxis with high standards of service.
He also supported the government’s plan to increase penalties for malpractices of taxi service such as overcharging and refusing fares, saying the rotten apples in the industry should also be properly punished.
Uber driver Sang Chui, 57, who also works in a law firm as a clerk, said he was not worried by the prospect of a government crackdown.
“I’ve talked with other Uber drivers. We’re not worried at all as usually those caught by the police would end up being fined,” he said.
Chui, who also rents five vehicles to other Uber drivers, said he had confidence in the firm’s operation. “Ride-hailing service is a global trend and many people in Hong Kong are using Uber. It’s very popular,” he said.
He said during the coronavirus pandemic, his income at his law firm was down by about 50 per cent to about HK15,000 a month. But thanks to Uber, he could earn an extra HK$20,000 a month as a driver.
“During the past two months when the social-distancing rules were relaxed Uber’s business has restored to 80 per cent of the pre-coronavirus period,” he said. “There is really a demand and it has offered an opportunity to the unemployed and bankrupt.”