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Philippines Jeepney strike drives home modernisation concerns

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 modes of public transport in hopes of changing the initiative.

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

Created at the end of World War II when enterprising Filipinos converted old jeeps abandoned by the US military into public minibuses that could carry as many as 25 people at a time, jeepneys are today the cheapest and most common form of commuting in the country.

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

The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB), which oversees the government plan, downplayed the impact of the strike. On Tuesday, however, union leaders were summoned to the presidential palace for a meeting behind closed doors.

Manibela chairman Mar Valbuena said Wednesday that drivers “stand by our beloved president Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr.’s statement that the administration is open to studying and reviewing the (plan) to improve the livelihoods of drivers and operators. retain”.

It involves the PUV Modernization Program (PUVMP), which was first announced in 2017 and involves replacing diesel-based jeepneys 15 years or older with newer, cleaner minibuses, as well as consolidating operators and drivers into cooperatives.

The LTFRB initially stated that 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 did not comply with the PUVMP were banned.

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

A passenger boards a jeepney. Many drivers struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic when they couldn’t follow their routes (File: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

‘Kings of the Road’

Jeepneys are referred to as the “kings of the road” and their drivers operate through franchises based on a government-issued license.

A franchisee usually owns at least one jeepney and often hires several drivers to drive 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 some 158,000 traditional jeepneys in the country, while 5,300 modern air-conditioned jeepneys with security cameras are already on the way.

Piston, the transportation union, says modernization costs are too high.

Drivers must bear the cost of up to 2.8 million Philippine pesos ($50,800) to replace their vehicles and need enough for at least 15 vehicles to start a co-op. Meanwhile, the government only offers to subsidize 5.7 percent of every new vehicle and many drivers fear they will lose their livelihoods.

“Who wouldn’t want a more efficient and comfortable vehicle? We barely earn enough to survive. We would like a modernization that meets the needs of the transport sector. But this is modernization that benefits big companies and is also a curse for the commuting public,” says Floranda.

Floranda says more expensive jeepney models will inevitably lead drivers to raise fares so they can pay off debt and other operational costs.

A recent study from the University of the Philippines estimated that minimum rates for jeepneys could increase by 300 percent as a result of the PUVMP.

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

Protesters hold signs in support of the jeepney strike.  The signs read 'No to Jeepney Phaseout" and 'Support the transport strike'
Protesters supported the drivers (Lisa Marie David/Reuters)

It said tariff increases would likely lead to a higher cost of living as it would become more expensive to move food and other supplies.

The drivers of jeepneys participating in the strike labeled the program a “corporate takeover” because modern jeepneys signify a partnership with foreign automakers 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 hours, just to make sure he had enough money to see him through the union action.

Bendoy, the vice president of the Novaliches Transport Coalition, one of the largest 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 keep making our lives harder.”

Drivers say they have struggled with little help from the government during the pandemic, when jeepneys were banned for more than a year, and with sequential increases in fuel prices.

“And now we have to contend with the phase-out. We don’t have days off. We keep our eyes open because the moment we close them our jeepneys could 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 modernization, which he says will “put us in debt”.

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

“I came back to the country because I was told there was a better program for us drivers. But I couldn’t pay the deposit. I also couldn’t wait seven months for the new unit to arrive. And I didn’t think a daily limit of 2,500 Philippine pesos ($45) was acceptable. That would mean I would have to work almost 24 hours to bring home a decent amount of money,” 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. Although the drivers do not receive wages, they get to keep what is left over after paying the quota and paying for fuel.

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

Ahead of the 2022 presidential election, then-candidate Marcos Jr vowed to support the drivers’ interests and win their support for his campaign.

Now that he is in office, some feel misled.

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

The back and side view of two jeepneys
Unions said the streets were almost empty on Monday when the strike began, though the government’s LTFRB said the situation was not so bad (Lisa Marie David/Reuters)

Before the strike, Marcos told reporters that while he still favored modernization, he didn’t think it was “implemented well”.

He also appealed to Piston and Manibela to reconsider in the interest of commuters. “More people will suffer because they can’t go to work,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Senate is working on a resolution to postpone the reduction plans.

“The LTFRB should not be forcing PUV operators to comply with their guidelines without addressing industry concerns, particularly regarding the high capital cost of purchasing modern jeepneys,” said Sen. Grace Poe, who is leading the resolution. .

After the presidential meeting, Marcos Jr instructed officials to review the plan to “ensure better implementation of the PUVMP and emphasize that the program is primarily aimed at drivers, operators and commuters.”

He insisted that the deadline would not change.