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Monday, Jun 01, 2020

Uber and taxi sector among businesses struggling in Hong Kong as people stay off the streets over coronavirus fears

Driver earnings halved over past two weeks, with Hong Kong Island the worst hit as firms allow employees to work from home and fewer eat out. Taxi union chairman appeals to government to ramp up mask supply to restore confidence, as well as provide aid for industry

Popular ride-hailing service Uber in Hong Kong has joined a list of businesses hammered by the coronavirus outbreak, with its passenger numbers taking a nosedive in the past two weeks as most people stay off the streets.

CEO Dara Khosrowshahi recently told the Canadian press that its Hong Kong business had been adversely affected by the health crisis. “We are not seeing a significant effect on the business overall, [but the impact] is in North Asia. For example, business in Hong Kong ... is down significantly.”

Uber’s Hong Kong office declined to comment on the matter.

Sam Chui, 56, an Uber driver who works at a law firm, said his income from the ride service was halved in the past two weeks, with fewer people willing to travel around.

“There are two major impacts. First, there have been fewer people travelling to the airport due to the sharp drop in the number of tourists and local travellers,” he said.

“The second is that there’s no school for both teachers and students, while most office staff work from home. The streets are all empty with people staying indoors. The only good thing is that the roads in Hong Kong are now free of congestion.”

Chui said that before the outbreak he could easily earn more than HK$2,000 (US$258) a day on weekends and over HK$1,000 on weekdays.

“The Uber ride orders have been greatly reduced. I know of one Uber driver being online for four hours without getting an order,” he said.

Chui said his ride-hailing service was largely unscathed by the months-long civil unrest sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, but it had succumbed to the coronavirus outbreak.

“During the protest days, there was a surge in demand for Uber rides, with prices going up. Ironically the protests brought a positive effect for Uber [with MTR closures and bus routes diverted]. But this time it is different.”

Another Uber driver Mark Chan, 32, also said his business was down by up to 40 per cent over the past two weeks. From an average of more than HK$1,400 a day initially, he now makes about HK$1,000 daily.

“The hardest-hit district is Hong Kong Island, where the number of riders has been greatly reduced. It may be due to the fact that a lot of firms now allow their staff to work from home. People also don’t have the mood for dining out and shopping,” he said.

Chan said he had no choice but to bite the bullet. “We all hope that this difficult time will be over soon.”

The drivers’ woes come against the backdrop of Uber not being allowed to operate legally in the city. Hong Kong’s population of more than 7 million people is served by 18,163 licensed taxis.

The already struggling taxi sector has also been dealt a blow by the outbreak.

Chau Kwok-keung, chairman of the Hong Kong Taxi and Public Light Bus Association, said taxi drivers saw their income drop by half over the past two weeks.

“Before the outbreak, taxi drivers could make about HK$1,400 per day before rent and fuel cost. Now they can only make about HK$700. Deducting vehicle rent and fuel, they only pocket about HK$200 to HK$300 daily. I think their salary is only slightly more than the minimum wage now,” he said.

He added that about 15 per cent of cabbies were afraid of being infected with the deadly disease, and had opted to suspend work. “They’d rather earn less than risk their health,” he noted.

Chau called on the government to ensure enough surgical masks for society and to increase fuel subsidies for the public transport sector to ride out the hard times.

“The taxi business has been very miserable over the past few weeks. The government needs to ensure sufficient supply of masks for Hong Kong people so they feel at ease going out to work, eat or shop. It also needs to offer immediate financial aid to taxi drivers. Then there’s a chance for the economy to recover,” he said.

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