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“Over the past three years, about 100 vehicles have been towed away,” he told a radio programme. “Some owners died, but most cases involved owners unable to afford loans.”

Minibuses in Causeway Bay. Driving a minibus in the city requires a special licence with a quota in place. Photo: Edmond So

The mass minibus confiscation became known to the public after some banks reportedly demanded several owners repay call loans amid a sharp decrease in the prices of the vehicles’ licence plates.

A Facebook page set up by minibus industry practitioners recently said a bank had taken action against owners with HK$4 million (US$511,448) to HK$5 million loans. Some owners had abandoned their vehicles at minibus stops or in the countryside.

In Hong Kong, driving a taxi or a minibus requires a special licence with a quota in place, making it a speculation commodity that has its own local betting market. Number of public light buses is fixed at a maximum of 4,350 vehicles, according to the Transport Department.

Hong Kong minibus firms urged to boost pay for drivers to attract more locals

The prices of minibus licence plates once peaked at HK$8 million in 2011 but fell to about HK$1 million after the Covid-19 pandemic, with some plummeting to as low as HK$700,000.

Chairman Cheung Hon-wah of the Public Light Bus Owner and Driver Association said the prices started dropping as early as 2015 after the opening of the westward extension of the Island Line from Sheung Wan to Kennedy Town, which pushed minibus drivers working on Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and thus created competition.

“Many [minibus owners] can’t even afford to pay out of their own pocket to keep the cars and have to return them to the banks,” he told another radio interview.

Minibus station in Sheung Shui. A total of 3,299 green minibuses operated in scheduled services through 355 routes as of last June. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Cheung also called on owners to discuss other solutions with their lenders, stressing the vehicles would not be towed away as long as they repaid the loans on time.

On Wednesday, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority said banks would not normally ask their customers for early repayments. He added banks repossessed only a few vehicles as collateral after their owners stopped paying instalments.

An authority spokesman said about 150 minibus operators had been receiving credit assistance from banks, with 10 currently asking for a payment holiday, in which owners could refrain from repaying their loan principal.

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Chow said he expected another 100 vehicles would be towed away if the government could not introduce measures in favour of the industry.

The Hong Kong minibus industry has recently been suffering a manpower shortage after more than 1,000 drivers reportedly left local operators to work for shuttle companies after the city reopened its borders with mainland China last year.

As of last June, 3,299 green minibuses operated in scheduled services through 355 routes, while 823 red ones offered hailing services in the city.

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