Coronavirus: Hong Kong bus firm KMB latest to jump into mask-making game after struggles equipping own staff

Kanis Leung

The parent company of Hong Kong’s biggest bus operator has become the latest local business to jump on the mask-production bandwagon, motivated by its struggle to meet the needs of its own staff amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Transport International Holdings, owner of KMB, on Friday announced plans to kick off manufacturing in April, just weeks after it was forced to borrow masks from the government due to an acute shortage caused by shipment delays.

KMB is among the many Hong Kong transport firms reeling during the epidemic, recording a 30 per cent decline in passengers as many residents choose to stay home for fear of contagion.

Addie Lam Tsz-ho, KMB’s head of corporate communications and public affairs, said Transport International had experienced difficulty in getting protective gear for its more than 13,000 workers, many of whom deal directly with the public, with hundreds of thousands of pre-ordered masks failing to arrive on time.

Lam said they had been forced to pay as much HK$6 and HK$7 per mask previously.

To make sure employees have enough protection to keep working, the firm is transforming part of the KMB bus depot in Tuen Mun into a production area for surgical masks that are up to standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials.

“It’s to ensure at least we can give out 10,000 masks every day,” Lam said.

As the masks will be produced largely for the company’s own use, the firm is not applying for the millions of dollars in support available from a HK$1.5 billion government mask subsidy, part of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s HK$30 billion coronavirus relief package.

KMB corporate communications chief Addie Lam attends a press conference announcing the company’s plan to produce masks in Kowloon Bay. Photo: Edmond So

“The scheme requires manufacturers applying for the subsidy to sell the masks to the government as a priority. That is different from our goal and intention,” he said. “Although it would be difficult to operate, we want to put our staff as priority in our consideration.”

He said the firm would cater to the needs of workers first, then send masks to the government to make up for those previously borrowed. If it later had the capacity, it would provide the products to retired staff and families of employees as well as those in need.

Lam did not disclose the cost and could not estimate output capacity. But he noted an automated mask-making machine can typically produce 60 to 80 masks per minute, with total output depending on manpower and the supply of raw materials.

Hong Kong has seen a flurry of companies, non-profits and individuals launching their own production lines in recent weeks as demand continues to outstrip supply.

In January, University of Hong Kong medical expert Ho Pak-leung estimated the city might need 300 million masks a month to combat the epidemic.

A social enterprise called masHker recently said it planned to start manufacturing about 100,000 masks a day in Kwai Hing.

The brand is expected launch its pre-order scheme on Tuesday, with a hoped-for production start in early April. For every two boxes of masks purchased, the company said it would donate a box to people in need.

Meanwhile, KMB has been forced to adjust bus schedules amid the slowdown, according to Lam. While vowing to keep enough buses in service for workers during peak hours, he said the recent 30 per cent drop in passengers had come despite most of the city’s 180,000 civil servants returning to their offices on Monday.

Weekends have been a different story, with the company actually stepping up services to Sai Kung and the countryside as hiking becomes increasingly popular among residents hoping to enjoy some fresh air during the epidemic.

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