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The Philippine government plans to phase out traditional public jeepneys, the iconic Filipino version of a minibus that originated from American military jeeps from World War II. Workers say it’s killing the only jobs they know that could support them and their families.
For Enrico Dela Cruz, a day starts with the roar of the engine. At the crack of dawn, the jeepney driver parks his car at a transport terminal, waiting for early commuters. When they fill the seats of his jeep, he kicks the gas pedals and drives down the same route he takes every morning.
At the age of 30, Enrico mastered the steering wheel. He started his trade as a courier of construction materials. After joining a local transport group, he embarked on a career as a jeepney driver. Working a grueling 12-hour shift, he earns at least US$13 a day plying the streets in his home province of Bulacan.
“I was able to send my children to college. Now they have a family of their own. It was a big opportunity for me when I became a driver,” Enrico said.
Now 54 years old, Enrico may soon hit the brakes for the final time. The Philippine government is launching a modernization policy that will decommission traditional jeepneys in favor of fuel-efficient minibuses. Thousands of jeepney drivers in the Philippines worry that the high barriers to entry in purchasing new vehicle units will force them off the road and push them into unemployment.
“It’s unfortunate that jeepneys will be phased out. It’s a great loss to us if our vehicles are retired. We don’t know where to go. If we no longer have our jeepney, we will change jobs. Someone like me who is old will struggle,” Enrico said. “If the jeepneys are gone, I may just stay at home. I’m not sure what will happen to me in the future.”
In the aftermath of World War II, American soldiers stationed in the Philippines left behind a fleet of Willys Jeep. Soon, the army trucks were given a new lease of life as one of the cheapest modes of public transport.
But a year into former President Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, the transport department announced an ambitious proposal to phase out all jeepneys with modern units powered by either electric batteries or a Euro-4 engine by 2020. His successor President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. adopted the plan.
Transport workers and jeepney drivers’ unions denounce the policy as the modern vehicles following government standards cost a skyrocketing US$50,700. Drivers fear drowning in debt. Many are still recovering from their financial losses on the heels of Covid-19 lockdowns. Austere state protocols banned public transport at the height of the pandemic, incapacitating jeepney operations.
State subsidies for drivers barely cover the cost. The government’s US$4,700 cash assistance is just 9% of a modern vehicle’s value.
For Mody Floranda, leader of the transport union PISTON, the modernization scheme will ruin the jobs of jeepney drivers. He said that while union members are not against upgrading their vehicles, the cost of implementing the measure threatens their livelihood.
“We saw that the modernization program will not serve drivers and operators. Instead, it will wash out their livelihood and rights as a service,” Floranda said.
PISTON and other jeepney drivers’ unions have been tirelessly campaigning for the scrapping of the modernization program, but the government refuses to cave in to their demands. Instead, officials decided to grant a temporary permit for traditional jeepneys to operate until March 2023.
In February, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) released a memo extending the validity of the permit to June. But at the same time, the directive forces drivers and operators to form cooperatives and consolidate their franchises. It requires a cooperative to manage at least 15 modernized jeepneys.
According to the announcement, if the drivers fail to comply by June, they will be forbidden to journey on the road. Following protests, regulators extended the consolidation deadline to December 31 after protests from drivers and lawmakers in the Senate.
A franchise allows drivers to offer public transport services with their vehicles. Under the modernization guidelines, franchise consolidation aims to “put together the fragmented transport industry by encouraging single operators and drivers to come together as one legal entity.” The directive also seeks to improve routes on which jeepneys should be driven while mandating a safety officer to survey units for violations.
Union leaders see the policy as the beginning of the end, as well as the first phase of the dreadful modernization plan that will kill off the only jobs they know that could support them and their families.
“The modernization that the government is pushing for is not to fix public transport but a way to become a big business. Large corporations and businessmen will be able to monopolize public transport,” Floranda said. “When the omnibus franchising guidelines surfaced, our stand was clear. If the aim is modernization, why is rehabilitation not allowed?”
Angered by the proclamation and to pressure the government to completely abandon the project, PISTON together with other transport workers’ unions launched a weeklong strike in early March. Demonstrators ended the strike on the second day after the government promised unions that it would review the program. The government also pledged to allow jeepneys to be “rehabilitated” instead of being phased out as long as they follow the engine requirement. But despite the deals, no offer to scrap the plan was on the table.
On the first day of the strike, Nolan Grulla and his colleagues drove past the headquarters of the LTFRB and blared the horns in a show of defiance against the modernization program.
Grulla of the University of the Philippines Transport Group (UPTG) said joining the program is like committing suicide. “Many will be left behind by their program,” he said. “Everyone should be included. They made the public utility vehicle modernization without consulting those in the transport sector.”
The strike paralyzed major routes in Metro Manila despite some drivers deciding to continue working. In picket lines, commuters and activists supported the walkout by donating food and joining mobilizations in the capital region.
In response, national and local governments disrupted the protests by providing free rides to passengers. Police also arrested and detained three striking drivers for three days before releasing them on bail.
Floranda of PISTON condemned the arrests, calling it a “show of desperation” by the government.
“We expected those steps from the government. They don’t want the strike to continue. But as we have said, strikes or any form of action are decided by the people. Our livelihood will be gone. There was anxiety in our chest but we needed to protect our livelihood,” Floranda said.
Reacting to the government’s promise to study the implementation of the program, Mar Valbuena of Manibela, another transport union in the strike, said that Marcos Jr should release an executive order suspending the modernization plan.
“If the promises are not fulfilled, we will launch a strike again. Let’s not go to the point where we are apprehensive of each other. Many will suffer if we do not get along,” Valbuena said.
Based on government figures, at least 60% of the estimated 158,000 traditional jeepneys have been consolidated so far. Minibuses hitting the road following the government’s plan are few and far between — around 5,300 units are operating in the country.
Charles Tan of PARA, a commuter advocacy group, echoed Floranda’s concern that franchise consolidation risks privatizing the public transport sector.
“The modernization push is leading to privatization. Public transportation is a public service. It should be reliable and affordable. It should not go to huge corporations but it seems that is where it is headed,” Tan said.
“Who can afford the franchises? Normal transport workers will not be able to afford that kind of money. If public transport is centered on large businesses, we will find it hard to lower prices and make sure it’s accessible to all since it will only become a private interest of a few select corporations.”
Few transport operators can afford to manage 15 jeepneys. Some workers who have consolidated their franchises and modernized their vehicles have already found themselves on the brink of bankruptcy.
Days after the transport strike, jeepney drivers are back navigating familiar roads. But as another deadline looms, drivers are still on edge. If the government insists on pushing through the plan, transport workers are ready to launch larger protests in the coming months.
“As long as the omnibus franchising guidelines remain, as long as it is not abolished, there is still uncertainty to the livelihood of drivers and operators,” Floranda said. He added that the government can always offer dialogues while the program continues on the sideline. “One day, we will be surprised, we can no longer find work.”
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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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