The Last Days of the Philippine Jeepney?

The Last Days of the Philippine Jeepney?
Photo Credit: Jeff Jacinto flicker @ CC BY 2.0

What you need to know

It is less a question of modernity and more about profiting from the plight of millions under the disguise of 'progress.'

We have been hearing about it for a while. The jeepneys — iconic symbols of daily Filipino life — are set to be declared obsolete by the Duterte government. Previous administrations have talked a big game on this matter but now there is a terrifying feeling it could really happen.

The Jeepney phase-out plan aims to “modernize” the local public transportation system by ridding the streets of the timeless pimped-up rides for more eco-friendly electric jeeps (e-jeeps). Sounds good, right? The catch is, drivers and operators will shoulder the costs.

E-jeeps will cost 900,000 to 1.5 million pesos each (US$17,900 to US$29,800), and Euro 4 engine jeeps will cost up to 1.6 million pesos. Drivers and operators rely on the number of passengers per day, and on good days, drivers earn more or less the same amount as the current minimum wage of 481 pesos; on bad days, a driver can go home with just enough to buy rice for the night.

Transportation unions estimate that 650,000 drivers and 250,000 operators will be left unemployed along with the small businesses whose trades revolve around the unique automobile design and production of the jeepney. Moreover, millions of disenfranchised commuters will have to bite the bullet as the most accessible and common form of public transportation ceases.

Before seeing the world high up from buses, trains and planes, most Filipinos have early memories of riding a jeepney. Many will tell you that learning the routes at a young age were part of growing up. It is common small talk to ask, “How old were you when you got to ride on your own?”

From taking the cue from parents or elders to familiarizing oneself with the proper etiquette of a ride, riding jeepneys represents the most basic of human activities in the modern Filipino society. But the issue goes beyond gripping onto a collective nostalgia; at the heart of the phase-out is a national corporate takeover.

All too familiar

They did it to the trains, universities, roads, hospitals and so much more. Ordinary Filipinos are paying for past and current administrations' superficial perceptions of “modernization.” According to a local survey conducted by the Social Weather Station during the final quarter of 2016, self-rated poverty is at an all-time low with an estimated 44 percent of Filipinos considering themselves poor.

Independent think tank IBON foundation reports that 66 million Filipinos are living on less than US$2.4 a day. Conversely, the net worth of the country’s 40 richest Filipinos has grown by 14 percent in the last year.

The Department of Transportation (DOTr) is requiring all drivers and operators to have a minimum working capital of 7 million pesos and 20 e-jeeps in order to set up shop with their own franchise. Typically, a jeepney operator handles about one to three vehicles, costing 400,000 pesos each. A few operators can band together to form associations that are eligible to apply for accreditation as a franchise and are regulated as such.

Put simply, the phase-out plan will bury many Filipinos in debt by forcing associations to pay north of 400,000 pesos when they are struggling to scrape US$3 a day.

Who then gets to own a franchise? The same people or corporate entities who took the trains, schools and hospitals from the public domain. The government is pushing hard for the corporatization of our daily movements. At the end of its implementation, jeepneys will forever be confined solely to nostalgia.

Allergic to strike

In response, thousands of jeepneys led by some of the biggest transportation unions (PISTON, No to Jeepney Phase-out Coalition and Stop and Go) on Feb. 27 paralyzed urban areas across the nation. A significant number of major cities had reached full suspension of jeepney operations.

There was an overwhelmingly positive support for the strike. Students, teachers and concerned citizens rallied behind those on strike in various protest centers. A moving testimonial of support posted on Facebook by a student on scholarship at an elite school went viral. Her hard-working father drove jeepneys and slept inside the vehicle for years to put her through school. She called on the public to listen and not dismiss the demonstration's demands.

But many local media chose to highlight different angles, including stranded commuters whose day was thrown into disarray or businesses whose important transactions went on hold. Social media was also alight with crude sentiment that branded jeepneys as pollutants crowding the streets holding a futile strike. The DOTr took a swipe at the protesters as well, labeling them as against urban development and modernization.

But nobody is opposed to more eco-friendly vehicles. By taking this as the center of the discussion, the motives of the phase-out and the opportunity for less harmful options are not taken into account. The government supposes that drivers and operators unwilling to pay for modernization are automatically against any kind of innovation. This is ironic, since the government should not be asking them too. Accessible public transportation falls under state responsibility.

Administration officials and the DOTr know this. Their heads aren’t purposefully narrow-minded; that it is less a question of modernity and more about profiting from the plight of millions under the disguise of “progress.”

A day of transportation paralysis is a small price to pay to avoid the extinction of jeepneys. A few more strikes could change that.

Editor: Olivia Yang