Bus driver salaries inversely proportional to risk involved

May 3rd, 2012 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Media crews across the street from Rikuentai offices in Chiba Prefecture

Shortly after he was elected mayor of Osaka earlier this year, Toru Hashimoto announced that one of his first acts in tackling the city’s deficit would be to cut municipal bus driver salaries by as much as 40 percent for a savings of ¥200 billion a year. The city employs 700 drivers whose average age is 50 and average annual pay is ¥7.39 million. Hashimoto wants to bring their salaries down to about the same level that bus drivers of private companies make in the region. According to the land ministry, the average pay of bus drivers in Osaka, whether they work for a private company or a public entity, is ¥4.6 million a year. Since Osaka municipal drivers belong to a union, it’s assumed Hashimoto has his work cut out for him, but likely he’ll make the change he wants gradually, by cutting pay grade increases for newer drivers.

Bus drivers are in the news now because of the accident on the Kanetsu Expressway in which seven passengers died during an overnight charter bus trip from Kanazawa to Tokyo. The driver fell asleep at the wheel and the bus crashed into an overpass wall. Though the driver was arrested for negligence, the accident has brought attention to the stress that long-distance bus drivers contend with every day. Driving a bus, especially in cramped Japan, is a risky occupation since the driver is responsible for passengers’ lives, but salaries don’t necessarily reflect that risk. Municipal bus drivers tend to make the most, but they almost never drive long monotonous distances that can cause drowsiness.

According to a blog that solicits readers about their salaries, municipal drivers and highway route drivers who work for major transportation companies make the most money, around ¥7 million, followed by route bus drivers who work for private companies. They make between ¥5.5 million and ¥6 million, or less depending on the region. The lowest pay is earned by charter tour bus drivers, like the one who had the accident on the Kanetsu. One 50-year-old who posted on the blog said he made ¥4.8 million a year, while a 29-year-old charter driver said he makes only ¥2.4 million.

A man we know in his early 40s who drives charter buses out of Osaka recently e-mailed us saying that ¥4.5 million is the “upper” limit for full-time drivers at his company and ¥3.5 million the “lower” end. Many tour bus companies, however, now use contract workers because they are cheaper, earning between ¥8,000 and ¥12,000 a day — and “a day” can mean more than 9 hours of driving. “Since the (Junichiro) Koizumi administration deregulated the industry, any company can now offer low fares for long distances,” he wrote. “The competition has become fierce. Charter bus companies take any job they can get from tour operators and worry about the drivers’ situations later.” He himself makes ¥4.4 million a year with 82 days off. He feels that the pay “isn’t enough for the risk involved,” and he definitely feels that Osaka municipal bus drivers make too much. “My company complies with safety regulations,” he wrote, however “I can’t make a living without working overtime, which is the dangerous part.” He also mentions that turnover among charter bus drivers is very high because of the stress, but in any event, a driver who quits always ends up doing the same thing for another company.

NHK has reported that police suspect the driver of the ill-fated bus, Kazan Kono, was employed as a day worker (hiyatoi), which is illegal for bus drivers. The Chiba-based company that hired him, Rikuentai, has been cited in the past at least twice for violations of “white plate” rules. Prior to deregulation, companies that handled tour groups had to be certified and display special green license plates, but many tour companies didn’t bother to go through the difficult and time-consuming red tape required to get the green plates and simply carried out tours with normal white license plates.

After deregulation Rikuentai entered the lucrative new “inbound” business, which targets tour groups from China and Taiwan that come to Japan mainly to shop. A bus picks up the tour group at Narita, takes it to Akihabara. The next day they go to Hakone, then on to Nagoya, Kyoto, and eventually get back on return flight from Kansai International. The bus then picks up another tour group and does the reverse back to Narita.

In 2010, 1.41 million tourists were booked on inbound charter trips, and at the time the market was expected to grow to 6 million a year. However, after the March 11 earthquake, the bottom fell out. During the two months following the quake, all inbound tours to Japan were cancelled.

Thus Rikuentai and many other charter bus companies who invested heavily in foreign tours had to scramble for other work. Tour operators who planned long-distance bus routes took advantage of the glut of available buses by pushing down prices. Rikuentai started providing buses and drivers for long-distance route work, like the one from Kanazawa to Tokyo.

Kono, who was born in China and is now a naturalized Japanese, has lived in Japan since the mid-’90s but didn’t become a bus driver until a few years ago. Press reports say his Japanese language ability is not very good. Part of the stress of driving route buses has to do with making required announcements, which apparently no one on the ill-fated bus understood. (It also may explain why he took a longer route than necessary, since it was one he was familiar with.) However, he’s the perfect driver for inbound work, since he can talk freely with the tourists. Also, there isn’t much long-distance driving involved with inbound tours. You basically drive to one destination and stay the night.

Long-distance route charters have become a huge business. In 2005, there were 230,000 long-distance customers. By 2010 the number had increased to 6 million. As more companies entered the field competition became greater. The fare for the Kanazawa-Tokyo bus that crashed was ¥3,500, a route that would cost ¥15,000 if taken by express train. There were 45 people on the bus, meaning it was almost full.

The crash took place right at the beginning of Golden Week, one of the busiest travel periods of the year, when the demand for buses and drivers is at its peak. It’s why the tour operator, working within the law, told Rikuentai that they wouldn’t need a second driver, which many bus companies hire for safety reasons regardless of the distance. Rikuentai called Kono for the job because he works cheap and was available. It was an accident waiting to happen.

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2 Responses

  1. I often took night buses until it got so much cheaper (and easier on my buttocks) to fly.

    Do you remember a fatal accident that occurred a few years ago, possibly in or around Osaka, when it turned out that the bus driver and the “conductor” were siblings, working for the family business, and that one of them was a teenager? I think that both of them died in the accident. I was really shocked to think that those two young men were pressured to work in such conditions, just to help keep the family business afloat.

    Is it true that the Chinese driver was a relative of a repatriated Japanese war orphan?

    About language: some of my students have complained to me that recently public announcements (especially in tourist traps) are being made by people who clearly aren’t native Japanese speakers. I responded that often English-language safety announcements on domestic flights (in Japan) are nearly unintelligible, especially on the budget airlines. I wonder if that’s not an accident waiting to happen, too.

  2. good morning. i am a long distance tour driver. i live in christchurch new zealand. we are allowed to be on duty for 13 hours in a 24 hour period.we have 2 half hour breaks after five and a half hours of on duty. we work a maximum of 70 hours a week. we must have a 24 hour break after completing 70 hours.this break can be for instance midnight to midnight or say 3pm to 3pm, so essentially we work 7 days a week. at times we will drive 600 plus kilometers a day

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