HCM City struggles as bus drivers quit in droves

Bus operators in the city are facing an acute shortage of drivers which are straining their services to the point where passengers are turning back on public transport.
Bus operators in the city are facing an acute shortage of drivers which are straining their services to the point where passengers are turning back on public transport.

Most bus operators are complaining of a massive exodus of drivers who are discouraged by low wages and work-related stress.

The city's Union of Transport Co-operatives lacks almost 100 drivers, meaning remaining members are having to pick up the slack, with services suffering as a result, said general director Phung Dang Hai, noting that hundreds of the city's 3,000 buses are in need of drivers.

"Many of buses have remained in their garages," he said, "and bus services have been deteriorating as a result."

Most drivers said that they are struggling with the intensity and pressure of driving in a city that is frequently clogged by swarms of motorbikes.

"An average bus driver wakes up at 3am to get ready for the first trip and he doesn't call it a day until 11pm," said Do Tien Luc, former deputy director of the city's Department of Transport who worked on the city's bus project since its inception.

Hai estimated that a bus driver sits behind the wheel from 10 to 15 hours a day, and the traffic congestion does much to prolong their working hours.

"They work relentlessly until they are exhausted and the shortage of drivers means they can't take any day off," he said.

Bus drivers do not only suffer from long hours and heavy traffic in streets narrowed by construction sites together with noise and dust, but they are also strained by money receipts for tickets, route scheduling, passenger complaints and various penalties.

Stressed and hard-working as they are, city's bus drivers hardly earn enough to support their families, especially in the context of rising living costs.

Luu Manh Hai, who shuttles everyday between Cho Lon Bus Station and the University of Transport, said he was paid 20,000 VND (1 USD) a trip, and that pay has remained unchanged for the last eight years despite being devalued by inflation.

Nguyen Thanh Ho, another bus driver with Sai Gon Star Joint Venture, said he and his colleagues want pay rises and a reduction in working hours to 12 hours a day.

"I'm working from 13 to 15 hours a day for 23 days a month and earn around 4 million VND (200 USD)," he said, noting that was a 20 percent rise since the beginning of the year.

Some drivers have been lured by long-distance bus companies shuttling between the city and other provinces which offer them attractive wages and better working conditions.

Bus companies also find it hard to recruit new drivers due to rigid criteria set by the Department of Transport which requires drivers to be aged 30 and above, a graduate from junior high school, with a heavy vehicle driving license and the necessary driving experience.

"The fact that drivers quit because of low wages and high pressure is not new, but after years without any improvements, the rate of drivers now leaving is alarming," said Do Tien Luc, former deputy director of the city's Department of Transport.

Driver shortages mean bus operators cannot service routes, affecting business to the point that they cannot afford to pay debts, maintain their fleets, improve service or reinvest in new fleets.

"A large number of existing buses which were brought into use eight years ago are getting old and don't run so well," said Phung Dang Hai, general director of the city's Union of Transport Co-operatives.

"They'll be obsolete within the next four years," he added, noting that the loss-incurring bus operators will not be able to invest in new fleets then.

Deteriorating services has driven more and more passengers away from buses which were once quite popular with city's commuters.

In the last year, bus transport in the city delivered 94 per cent of their objective for the whole year, losing more than 60,000 tickets a day on average compared to previous years.

In the meantime, bus operators predict a further decrease of passengers this year despite the objective of a year-on-year increase of 19 percent set by the city's Public Transport Management Centre.

Bus operators pointed to the fact that driver wages depend much on bus subsidies framed by city authorities to explain why they cannot afford to raise bus driver wages.

Dr Nguyen Thi Bich Hang from the University of Transport said bus subsidies have been left far behind in the price hikes of recent years.

"The minimum wage has been lifted again and again, and fuel prices have also gone up many times, while bus subsidies were revised just once," she remarked.

Luc urged the city to quickly adjust bus subsidies to match inflated wage and fuel costs.

"We're actually subsidising passengers so that they can use public transport at low prices," he said.

"So, we're taking from taxpayers to pay for taxpayers," he added, "That makes sense."/.

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