Efforts to crack down on ride-hailing services such as Uber by doubling the punishments for their drivers may not have the desired effect, Hong Kong legislators said on Saturday.
The remarks came after the Transport Department proposed the beefed-up sanctions.
Uber is still outlawed in Hong Kong. While the Consumer Council has called for it to be legalised, the taxi industry has accused the government of not coming down hard enough on it.
According to the proposal tabled at the Legislative Council, the maximum fine for illegal hires – in legal jargon, illegal carriage of passengers for hire or reward – would rise to HK$10,000 (RM5,100) on first conviction, from HK$5,000 (RM2,500). For subsequent convictions it would jump from HK$10,000 to HK$25,000 (RM12,900).
Licence suspensions and vehicle seizures would also get longer.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Ben Chan Han-pan, who chairs the Legislative Council’s transport panel, welcomed the proposed amendments, noting they would also combat unlicensed pirate taxis, known locally as pak pai.
But the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong member also questioned whether harsher penalties could stop the rise of ride-hailing.
“Whether imposing harsher penalties can help stop the problem, I have a question mark here,” he said.
Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said the government should seek opinions from the taxi industry and discuss regulations for online ride-hailing services.
One industry leader wanted an even tougher crackdown. Wong Wing-chung, chairman of the N.W. Area Taxi Drivers and Operators Association, also said bigger fines were not enough.
“They should take away the car,” he said. “What use is fining a pak pai HK$10,000?”
He also called on the government to sue Uber.
An Uber spokeswoman said the company was committed to working with the government so it could operate legally in the city.
“Ride-sharing has been embraced by hundreds of governments globally, and Uber believes that Hong Kong should not be left behind,” she said.
Two panel members agreed, and criticised the government for keeping Uber outside the law.
Civic Party lawmaker Jeremy Tam Man-ho, deputy chairman of the panel, said officials were suppressing ride-railing services but doing nothing to serve the evident demand for them.
“The government fails to accept new things. We could actually regulate Uber and make it compete with taxi drivers,” he said.
IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok blasted officials for, as he saw it, bowing to pressure from the taxi industry, arguing that he could not see the harm online-hailing services had caused.
“When the government sees aggressive people, it bows to them. Residents are not as powerful as those who hold taxi licenses,” he said.
Cases of illegal ride services have become more prevalent, the Transport Department said. Police took action on 195 cases between January 2015 and December 2018.
The department said it studied 10 jurisdictions, including mainland China, Singapore, Chicago and London, and noted that the maximum fine in Hong Kong was relatively low.
Among the 10, the maximum fine ranged from about HK$16,000 (RM8,300) to HK$6.4mil (RM3.3mil).
Last month, a group of cabbies vented their anger about the incursion of Uber by smashing two taxis with hammers outside the Department of Justice in Central.
On the same day, about 150 of them protested outside the Chief Executive’s Office in Admiralty, slamming the government for not taking action against services like Uber, which they said had harmed their incomes. – South China Morning Post