Philippines Jeepney strike drives home modernisation concerns | News

Manila, Philippines – Some 100,000 jeepney drivers in the Philippines have ended a strike over government plans to phase out one of the country’s most ubiquitous but polluting forms of public transport amid hopes the initiative will be changed.

Transport unions Piston and Manibela began the action on March 6, prompting schools in Metro Manila and many other areas to move teaching online and other businesses to work from home.

Jeepneys, which originated at the end of World War II when enterprising Filipinos repurposed old jeeps left by the United States army into public minibuses able to carry as many as 25 people at a time, are today the cheapest and most common form of commuter transport in the country.

The roads in Manila were noticeably quieter as Piston declared that 90 percent of the capital’s jeepney routes had been suspended. It was a similar situation elsewhere in the country.

The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB), which is overseeing the government plan, downplayed the impact of the strike. On Tuesday, however, union leaders were called to the presidential palace for a closed-door meeting.

Speaking on Wednesday, Manibela’s Chairman Mar Valbuena said drivers would “hold onto the statement of our beloved President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr that the administration is open to studying and revising the (plan) to maintain the livelihood of drivers and operators”.

At issue is the PUV Modernisation Programme (PUVMP), which was first announced in 2017 and includes replacing diesel-based jeepneys that are 15 or more years old with newer, cleaner minibuses, as well as the consolidation of operators and drivers into cooperatives.

The LTFRB initially declared April 1 would be the “last trip” for the older vehicles but amid strong opposition from transport groups, it moved the deadline to June and, finally, to December 31. After that, jeepneys that have not complied with the PUVMP will be banned.

“An execution is still an execution if you just move the date,” Piston Chairperson Modesto Floranda told Al Jazeera. “The government is massacring our livelihood.”

A woman in a face mask bending over as she moves down the central aisle of a jeepney to find a seat. There are passengers sitting on benches on either side of the vehicle.
A passenger boards a jeepney. Many drivers struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic when they were unable to ply their routes [File: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

‘Kings of the road’

Jeepneys are dubbed the ‘kings of the road’ and their drivers work through franchises based on a licence to operate provided by the government.

A franchise holder usually owns at least one jeepney and often hires several drivers who ply the route in shifts. Under the PUVMP, drivers and owners will have to form a cooperative, which government officials say will improve efficiency.

According to the LTFRB, there are about 158,000 traditional jeepneys in the country, while 5,300 modern jeepneys with air conditioning and security cameras are already on the road.

Piston, the transport union, says the cost of modernisation is too steep.

Drivers are required to shoulder costs of up to 2.8 million Philippine pesos ($50,800) to replace their vehicles and will need enough for at least 15 vehicles to start a cooperative. Meanwhile, the government is only offering to subsidise 5.7 percent of each new vehicle and many drivers fear they will lose their livelihood unit.

“Who would not want a more efficient and comfortable vehicle? We earn barely enough to survive. We’d like a modernisation that caters to the needs of the transport sector. But this is modernisation that favours big business and is a bane to the commuting public as well,” said Floranda.

Floranda says more expensive jeepney models will inevitably lead drivers to increase fares just so they can pay off debts and other operational expenses.

A recent study by the University of the Philippines estimated minimum jeepney fares could rise by 300 percent as a result of the PUVMP.

The study warned of two “’blind sides’: the high price per unit of the modern jeepney and the domino effect of a possible jeepney fare hike to cover the cost of purchasing modern jeepney units”.

Protesters hold placards in support of the jeepney strike. The placards read 'No to Jeepney Phaseout" and 'Support the Transport Strike'
Protesters came out in support of the drivers [Lisa Marie David/Reuters]

It said fare increases would probably lead to higher living costs as it would become more expensive to move food and other necessities.

The jeepney drivers taking part in the strike have labelled the programme a “corporate takeover” because modern jeepneys mean partnering with foreign carmakers such as Hino Toyota, Hyundai and Fuso Mitsubishi.

Struggle to survive

A few days before the strike, jeepney driver Juny Bendoy circled his route for 16 hours instead of the usual 12 just to ensure he had enough money to see him through the industrial action.

Bendoy, the vice president of the Novaliches Transport Coalition, one of the biggest in Metro Manila, called his extra hours a “necessary sacrifice”.

“Why are they forcing us into an impossible position?” Bendoy said. “We’ve been through so much, they are not letting up in making our lives harder.”

Drivers say they have struggled with barely any help from the government during the pandemic, when jeepneys were banned from the roads for more than a year, as well as with the successive fuel price hikes.

“And now we have to contend with the phase-out. We don’t have any days off. We keep our eyes open because the moment we close them, our jeepneys might be taken from us,” Bendoy told Al Jazeera.

On average, Bendoy brings home $3.6 a day after expenses, not nearly enough to save for modernisation, which he says will “bury us in debt”.

Nick Ventura, 43, an officer at the Novaliches-Blumentritt Operators and Drivers Association, declined to join a franchise cooperative when he moved back to the Philippines after working as a driver in Qatar.

“I came back to the country because I was told there was a better programme for us drivers. But I couldn’t afford the downpayment. I also couldn’t wait around for seven months for the new unit to arrive. And I didn’t think that a daily boundary of 2,500 Philippine pesos ($45) was acceptable. That would mean I’d have to work for nearly 24 hours just to take home a decent amount,” he said.

Drivers currently pay a quota fee or “boundary” to the jeepney owner so they can drive the vehicle. For Ventura, this fee is $9. While the drivers do not get a wage, they get to keep whatever is left after paying the quota and paying for fuel.

Under the new system, they will be paid a daily wage but will still have to pay a quota, depending on the route. Piston says drivers are reluctant to engage with the system because wages will be low while quotas will be high.

In the run-up to the presidential election in 2022, then-candidate Marcos Jr promised that he would back the interests of drivers, winning their support for his campaign.

Now that he is in office, some feel they have been misled.

“He broke his promise. He told us that as long as our vehicles passed the emissions testing, we would be able to provide a public service,” said Ventura.

The rear and side view of two jeepneys
Unions said the streets were nearly emptied on Monday when the strike began, although the government’s LTFRB said the situation was not that bad [Lisa Marie David/Reuters]

Ahead of the strike, Marcos told reporters that while he still favoured modernisation, he did not think it was being “implemented well”.

He also appealed to Piston and Manibela to reconsider for the sake of commuters. “More people will suffer because they cannot go to work,” he said.

Meanwhile, there are moves in the upper house on a resolution to postpone the phase-out plans.

“The LTFRB should not coerce PUV operators into complying with their guidelines without addressing the sector’s concerns, particularly on the high capital costs of acquiring modern jeepneys,” said Senator Grace Poe, who is leading the resolution.

After the presidential meeting, Marcos Jr instructed officials to look at the plan again to “ensure a better implementation of the PUVMP and emphasise that the programme centres on drivers, operators and commuters especially”.

He insisted there would be no change to the deadline.

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